On February 22, 2012 a 9 year old boy brought a loaded .45 caliber handgun to school. It was in the child’s backpack when he slammed the pack onto a desk, and the gun inside discharged. It hit an eight year old girl who was a classmate of the boy. The bullet narrowly missed vital organs, but the girl has been subjected to multiple surgeries, and nearly died.
The long term disability facing this girl is not yet known, but the reports indicate that her injuries are so extensive that it is extremely unlikely that she will have no lasting impairment. She was just recently taken off a respirator, and remains hospitalized.
The prosecutor’s office has charged the boy, and is also charging his mother and the mother’s boyfriend with criminal liability. However, the pain and suffering that this girl has had to endure, not to mention the huge medical bills, and mental anguish her family must deal with, will not be compensated through the criminal justice system. From all newspaper accounts, it does not appear as though the boy’s parents have the means to compensate the victim and her family. In a situation such as this, how can a victim and the victim’s family receive just compensation for the injuries?
The school may have more responsibility in this situation than first appears. The boy stated that he brought the gun to school for protection because he had been jumped by some bigger kids the week before. (This article has some of the boy’s statements regarding his reasoning for bringing the gun to school: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2017692693_shooting08m.html?prmid=4939). The boy said that the school authorities did not listen to his version of the events, and accused him of lying. Although it is reported that the kids who were involved in the original incident were suspended, the boy claims that after that suspension, the same kids threatened him again. These facts are important because they tend to show that the school knew there was an issue, and may not have followed up or pursued the boy’s version of events.
Determining whether a school is liable for the actions of one of its students depends on basic theories of negligence. For example, where school personnel fail to exercise proper supervision, or allow a student to act in a manner that might reasonably be foreseen to cause injuries to another. Washington has clearly found that there the school does owe a duty to its students: The general duty… imposed by law upon the school district and its teachers during school hours is to properly supervise the pupils attending school in the district. Rodriguez v. Seattle Sch. Dist., 66 Wn.2d 51, 401 P.2d 326 (1965); Tardiff v. Shoreline Sch. Dist., 68 Wn.2d 164, 411 P.2d 889 (1966). While the pupil is attending school the duty is mandatory. McLeod v. Grant County School Dist., 42 Wn.2d 316, 255 P.2d 360 (1953).
The first question is: Did the school have some duty implicated in this situation? Obviously, the answer is yes. It had a duty to adequately supervise its students. It also had a duty to anticipate foreseeable dangers and minimize resulting harm. It had a duty to fully investigate and take necessary action against bullying behavior. Arguably, that includes ensuring that the original victim of the bullying (the 9 year old boy) felt protected, and keeping communication up with that child to ensure that further harm wasn’t likely.
The second question is: Did the school breach one or more of those duties? Unfortunately, the newspaper accounts do not focus much on the facts relevant to this discussion. Sometimes, it is necessary to commence litigation to force one side to even divulge the relevant facts. The information we have before us from the newspapers and the boy’s story indicates that, at least, he did not feel as though the threat to him was being taken seriously. He was threatened again. The school, in his mind, wasn’t doing enough to protect him.
The third step of the analysis was whether, assuming the school did breach one or more duties, if that breach was the cause of the harm suffered by the girl. Causation can be a complicated legal issue. Clearly, the most obvious cause of the girl’s injuries was the accidental discharge of the handgun after the boy brought it to school. However, when determining the “cause” (or causes, there can be multiple) of an injury, courts generally look to whether the injury was of a type that could be reasonably foreseen by the alleged tortfeasor (in this case, the school). So, the pertinent question is if the school breached its duties to adequately investigate and correct the bullying behavior, is it reasonably foreseeable that that breach would lead to the bullied pupil bringing a weapon to school, and that weapon causing the type of injury suffered in this case? In my opinion, I believe that it is reasonably foreseeable. School bullying and violence has been a scourge in the school system, and there are frequent tragic stories of the victims of the bullying lashing out in violent ways, often bringing guns to school for protection or for retribution. Any modern educator or administrator must be aware of these dangers, and thus the injury suffered by this little girl was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of a breach of the school’s duty to adequately supervise its students, and to investigate and handle bullying. (This, of course, implies that there was a breach of that duty, as stated above, the complete facts are not known)
The final step of the analysis is simply whether the girl suffered damages. Clearly, both she and her family have suffered severe damages. The child is physically, emotionally, and mentally scarred, and has to suffer extreme pain and multiple surgeries. The family of this child has had to endure the mental anguish and agony of nearly losing their child, and likely has incurred large medical bills. These are but a few of the extensive list of damages suffered by this child and her family.
This was a tragic event. This was a tragic event that has led to extreme loss for a little girl and her family. They, ultimately, will have to decide whether to bring a claim against the school where this occurred. However, it’s important to note that just because someone (or a company/school/etc.) gets sued does not make them “bad,” or “uncaring.” Nor does it make a plaintiff “greedy” or “heartless” because they simply cannot afford to accept a sincere apology alone when such extreme injury has been suffered. Before passing judgment on plaintiffs in our society, think of it this way: Who is better positioned to shoulder the burden? Is it best shouldered by an individual plaintiff, who, through no fault of their own, suffered severe injuries, and who likely has limited financial resources? Or, is it best shouldered by a party who meets the legal elements of liability, but also will likely be covered by an insurance policy or vastly higher economic resources than the plaintiff?
Bottom line: Our system of justice is rarely focused on moral labels of “bad” and “good.” A Defendant isn’t “bad” because they are liable for a plaintiff’s damages. A plaintiff isn’t “greedy” because they ask for something more than an apology when they have suffered damages.
To end this focused on the original topic, which was vicarious liability of schools, a school may be liable for the conduct of a student if they breached their duty to supervise the student, or breached another duty, which caused harm that was reasonably foreseeable. This can include many different types of torts, both intentional and unintentional.
Breckan Law PLLC