Everyone recognizes that teachers have a difficult job. We also trust teachers with the education and well-being of our children. So, when the worst happens and a child dies while in a teacher’s custody, grieving parents will understandably seek accountability and justice through the courts.
Barnett v. Caldwell
Unfortunately, when it comes to teachers employed by public schools, the legal system makes such accountability difficult. Although the Georgia Constitution states that a state employee may be personally liable for “negligent failure to perform” a “ministerial” function, they are generally immune from lawsuits arising from discretionary acts. In non-legal terms, if the law mandates a state employee do something, then he or she can be sued for negligently failing to do so. If the employee has discretion to do something, however, then he or she cannot be sued if that decision caused injury to a third party, unless the victim can prove that the employee acted with “actual malice” or “actual intent to cause injury.”
So, how does this apply in the context of a teacher whose negligence leads to a student’s death? The Georgia Supreme Court recently addressed this situation. In October 2008, a teacher in Atlanta left her classroom unsupervised. During her absence, two students “engaged in horseplay.” One of the students fell to the floor unconscious. As it turned out, the so-called horseplay dislocated his collarbone and severed a major blood vessel, killing him.
The teacher initially lied to school officials about her absence from the classroom. Later, she gave conflicting explanations for leaving the room. Regardless of her reasons, Atlanta Public Schools (APS) policy clearly prohibited a teacher from leaving any classroom unsupervised.
The deceased student’s parents sued the teacher for wrongful death and negligence. Both the trial court and the Georgia Court of Appeals held that the teacher was immune from lawsuit since her decision to leave the classroom unsupervised was a “discretionary” act. The Georgia Supreme Court agreed to review this decision.
Ultimately, the high court agreed with the two lower courts. Even though the teacher acknowledged that she “should never leave students unsupervised,” the Supreme Court said that did not render her failure to do so a breach of any “ministerial” duty. The Court noted APS’s policy handbook “calls for a teacher to exercise personal deliberation and judgment in determining whether to leave a classroom, and if so, how to go about providing for supervision of the class during the absence.”
The Court concluded that far from commanding the teacher to take any definitive action, APS policy here offered “no specificity in the general duty of student supervision.” And “common experience tells us there can be a wide range of appropriate supervision in different contexts.” And while a teacher may still be subject to “consequences” for violating APS policies, including those that involve the exercise of personal judgment, under the facts of this particular case, the teacher cannot be subject to civil liability. But the Supreme Court did allow that there may be circumstances in which a supervision policy could be “so definite as to render a school employee’s acts ministerial.”