Our Birmingham personal injury attorneys know that when we send our children to school, we expect they will be adequately supervised and that those we entrust with the well-being of our youth will guard their safety.
In Hall v. Jones, a Jefferson County case recently reviewed by the Alabama Supreme Court, this did not happen, according to the plaintiff, a mother of a boy seriously injured at school.
According to court documents, the incident arose out of a fight between two teenage boys engaged in a game of basketball in a middle school physical education class. Jones was the physical education instructor in charge at the time of the incident.
One of the boys said he was closely guarding a classmate during the game when his classmate became angry and threw the basketball at him, striking him in the face. The boy who had been struck responded by pushing his classmate and throwing a punch. A fight broke out.
Other students in the gymnasium intervened to separate the two, but the two boys continued to launch verbal insults at one another for about a minute. Then suddenly, a third student unexpectedly shoved the first into the second. The second responded by “slamming” the other boy into some metal stairs nearby. As a result, the first student suffered serious head injuries.
Jones, the physical education teacher, would later contend that he was at the opposite end of the gym when the fight broke out, having walked there to deliver a message to the girls’ physical education teacher that she was needed in the school’s main office.
Two years after the incident, the student’s mother sued Jones, as well as the girls’ physical education teacher and a third instructor, alleging negligence and wantonness because the defendants had breached their duty to responsibly supervise the boys for an extended period of time.
Jones responded to this complaint by asserting, among other arguments, that he had state-agent immunity and requesting a summary judgment in his favor, thereby ending the case. A school employee can be granted immunity from liability in civil cases when he or she is acting within the scope of his or her employment.
In response, the injured boy’s mother voluntarily dropped her claims against the other two physical education teachers, but pressed her case against Jones. She contended that because Jones had left the gymnasium at the time of the fight, he was therefore acting beyond the scope of his employment and had lost his right to claim state-agent immunity.
The case was no slam dunk, but the trial court did enter a denial of his motion for a summary judgment, meaning the case would be allowed to proceed and the mother had a fair shot at recovering damages. (The court did grant a summary judgment for the other two gym instructors, finding that they qualified for state-agent immunity.)
Jones appeal this decision was denied by the circuit court on the grounds that he had failed to file it within the generally-accepted reasonable time frame of 42 days. He also failed to include any statement of circumstances that would show good cause as to why the court should consider his petition.
The supreme court later affirmed this decision.
Researchers have estimated that about 1 in 14 students suffers a medically-attended or temporarily disabling injury while at school. Sometimes, as in this case, they stem from violence, but they may also be the result of playground trips, slips and falls and other unintentional incidents.
The bottom line is that while government immunity generally protects Alabama schools from most issues of liability, there will always be exceptions. Specifically, school employees can be held liable in negligence cases when they act “willfully, maliciously, fraudulently, in bad faith, beyond his or her authority or under a mistaken interpretation of the law,” per the 2000 decision in Ex parte Cranman.
Hall v. Jones, December 2013, Supreme Court of Alabama