The Alabama Supreme Court recently granted state immunity to a middle school that had been named as a defendant in a civil case alleging negligence against a student who had been a victim of an alleged sexual assault on school grounds. The plaintiff had claimed the school and principal’s negligence in providing adequate supervision created an opportunity for the assault to occur.
Our Tuscaloosa personal injury lawyers know that immunity laws are nothing new, dating back to English common law, which included the legal doctrine that “the king can do no wrong.” Statutes like these are commonplace throughout the country, and most hold that the state can’t be sued for negligence. The general idea is that individuals, not taxpayers, should be responsible when negligence occurs.
However, there is a procedure in Alabama whereby a person can file a claim for injury or death against a city, though the maximum award is capped at $100,000 per plaintiff and $300,000 per incident. In some of these cases, a government employee can’t be sued for negligence in his or her official capacity, but can be sued in his or her individual capacity.
The plaintiff in the Davis case is suing the principal in his individual capacity. That aspect of the case will be allowed to move forward. However, the case against the school itself has been dismissed per the state’s immunity law.
The plaintiff had attempted to argue that the school is a separate legal entity from the school board, which is expressly granted state immunity under Article I, Section 14 of the Alabama Constitution. That stance was disputed by the district, which filed a petition to dismiss the action on the basis of state immunity.
In May, the circuit court denied the defendant’s request. However, the state supreme court reversed that action. Citing the 2008 case of Bessemer Board of Education v. Tucker, the high court stated that city boards of education are local agencies of the state. As such, they enjoy constitutional immunity from tort actions alleging negligence.
The court further reasoned, per the 1991 case of B.M. v. Crosby, that the school itself was also immune because it could not be established a separate legal entity from the school board. Rather, it operates under the direction of the school board, making them one in the same.
As such, the Alabama Supreme Court issued an order vacating the circuit court’s earlier ruling and issuing an order to dismiss the petitioners from the claim.
However, the case isn’t entirely over. The principal, facing a claim of negligence in his individual capacity, was not one of those petitioners. Therefore, the claim against him may still continue.
Schools aren’t the only entities that enjoy this kind of immunity. Others established by previous case law include airports and police.
However, others, such as hospitals, are not protected. This was underscored earlier this year in the state supreme court’s May decision in UAB Health System v. Davis. Here, the court affirmed a $3.2 million medical malpractice wrongful death claim after dismissing the hospital’s petition claiming state immunity.
Ex parte Bessemer City Board of Education and Davis Middle school, Petition for Writ of Mandamus, In re: John Doe v. Davis Middle School et al, Jefferson Circuit Court, Bessemer Division