Employment Spotlight: Suing Schools for Negligence Under Gambrill v. Bd. of. Ed. of Dorchester County
In Gambrill, the Court of Appeals recently reversed three significant legal errors below by the trial court and intermediate appellate court, and reinstating the Gambrill family's right to sue over a school's alleged negligent mishandling of bullying of their daughter during the sixth grade.
Here, a student named "S." was bullied and attacked by multiple students in and out of classrooms. The school system became aware of it due to several dramatic incidents. Plus, her parents complained more than once and asked for help. In the end, the Gambrill family switched "S." to a new school after she suffered two concussions at school, and suffered, as alleged, emotional trauma. The Court of Appeals remanded the matter for trial, stating enough evidence existed for a jury to decide whether (1) what happened was due to school negligence or (2) other reasons. See Gambrill v. The Board of Education for Dorchester County, et. al., Slip Op. No. 34 (Md. Ct. App. Aug. 26, 2022) (J. Booth).
In Gambrill, the Court of Appeals held that a federal law known as the "Coverdell Act" does not shield teachers from liability for allegations about negligent handling of disciplinary matters because the federal Act specifically permits lawsuits where the school system will pay for any damages assessed by any Court. This is so under Maryland law.
Because the Act, as quoted by the Court of Appeals, provides this exception loud and clear, so to speak, it is hard to understand how it was missed at lower levels of the court system. Yet, litigation is often difficult in high stakes matters.
The Coverdell Act is formally titled: Paul D. Coverdell Teacher Protection Act of 2001, 20 U.S.C. § 7941 et seq. To take a larger policy view, the Coverdell Act protects teachers from personal liability when they act within the scope of their job, but permits lawsuits against them if the school system will pay. So, teachers are protected financially either way under this Act.
In reversing a second ruling below that had blocked this lawsuit, the Court of Appeals discussed Maryland's "educational malpractice doctrine." This doctrine states that allegations of negligent education of a child in “educational placement or pedagogical decisions" for instance, Slip Op. 34, cannot be remedied by a lawsuit for damages. Id. at 31-34 (citing and clarifying Hunter v. Board of Education of Montgomery County, 292 Md. 481, 487 (1982)).
Here, the Court of Appeals held that the alleged negligent ignoring of the bullying of "S." did not fall under the educational malpractice doctrine because it involves school discipline, but not curricular decisions, educational placement, and other pedagogical matters that doctrine blocks from being the subject of negligence litigation.
In other words, if the curricular education seems negligent, parents cannot sue at court, but can switch schools, move to new school districts, etc., under this Maryland common law doctrine.
Lastly, as summarized above, the Court of Appeals found enough evidence existed for trial and summary judgment for the Board of Education that had dismissed this case was premature and inappropriate.
If there is a takeaway, it is that parents need to be vigilant in monitoring how their children are doing at school, because school administrators miss it, are overwhelmed, other factors might be involved requiring investigation, or as alleged here, the school may be negligent.
The Gambrills did at least stop the harm by changing schools well before this lawsuit reached the Court of Appeals.
Further, a lawsuit may take years when suing the State of Maryland or any large organization.
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Mosson Law, LLC