Parents expect their children to be safe while attending school. Safety is especially important when dealing with children who have learning disabilities or other special needs. Unfortunately, if a child is seriously injured at school, parents may have limited legal options for holding negligent teachers or administrators accountable.
Postell v. Anderson
Here is an illustration from a recent Georgia Court of Appeals decision. The victim in this case was a 14-year-old wheelchair-bound special needs student. The minor attended special education classes at an elementary school in Cherokee County, Georgia. One day, a teacher’s aide transported the victim to an outdoor activity where several other students were in attendance. During this activity one of the other special needs children, a kindergartner with a history of “behavioral problems,” assaulted another student. In the course of restraining this child, the teacher’s aide took her hands off the victim’s wheelchair, causing it to roll down a hill and flip over.
The victim’s parents sued the aide, seeking compensation for injuries their child sustained in the accident. The aide moved to dismiss, claiming she had “qualified immunity” from any lawsuit arising from her in-class actions. A trial court denied the aide’s motion, which she immediately appealed to the Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel subsequently reversed the trial court and dismissed the parents’ lawsuit.
Chief Judge Sara L. Doyle said the aide’s decision to abandon the victim’s wheelchair in order to help “discipline” the misbehaving kindergartner constituted a “discretionary” act entitled to qualified immunity under Georgia law. Basically, qualified (or official) immunity applies whenever a public employee exercises a function requiring discretion or individual judgment. In contrast, no such immunity exists when an employee negligently fails to perform a mandatory—or “ministerial”—duty required by law.
Here, the parents attempted to prove the aide’s actions were in fact ministerial. The parents cited testimony from the aide’s supervising teacher, who “cautioned” her to be careful in handling the victim’s wheelchair, noting it “was heavy” and “could get away from her.” The parents argued this constituted binding instructions the aide was required to follow. The Court of Appeals disagreed. Chief Judge Doyle said nothing in these warnings actually constituted “a specific directive giving rise to a ministerial duty.”
The appeals court also rejected the parents’ claim that the aide violated “the simple and absolute rule [that] states that a school professional must keep her hands on a student’s wheelchair until the brake is set.” Chief Judge Doyle said no such rule exists. Additionally, she noted the teacher’s aide “received no training on when it is safe or unsafe to take her hands off of a wheelchair or whether she is required to engage the brake on the chair when pushing a student in a wheelchair.” Typically, a ministerial duty only arises when a public employee fails to follow very specific training or instructions.