Case Background

In the case of Romanella v. Nielson, a student sued a teacher, principal, board, and town, seeking damages for injuries suffered when the student was assaulted by another pupil outside the doors of a school less than a minute after school dismissal. The teacher and related agents moved more summary judgment which is a preemptive judgment by the court in favor of one party over the other.

In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a court’s function is not to decide issues of material fact, but rather to determine whether any such issues exist. In seeking summary judgment, the teacher has the burden of showing the nonexistence of any issue of fact.

Governmental Immunity 

The teacher, the principal, the board, and the town argued that the defense of governmental immunity applied to bar the case. In law, qualified governmental immunity is available as a defense when the acts complained of are discretionary. A municipality is immune from liability for the performance of governmental acts, as distinguished from ministerial acts.

Governmental acts are performed wholly for the direct benefit of the public and are supervisory or discretionary in nature. On the other hand, ministerial acts are performed in a prescribed manner without the exercise of judgment or discretion as to the propriety of the action. There are some exceptions to governmental immunity.

The student argued that he was entitled to suit because of the identifiable person-imminent harm exception to governmental immunity. For the identifiable person-imminent harm exception to governmental immunity to apply, three things are required: (1) an imminent harm; (2) an identifiable victim; and (3) a public official to whom it is apparent that his or her conduct is likely to subject that victim to that harm. The identifiable person-imminent harm exception to government immunity applies not only to identifiable individuals but also to narrowly defined identified classes of foreseeable victims. School children who are statutorily compelled to attend school, during school hours on school days, can be an identifiable class of victims.

The Court’s Decision

The issue was whether the failure of school personnel to recognize the possibility of the impending assault on the student and/or their failure to take any steps to forestall it, constituted discretionary or ministerial acts. The court found that the town’s duty in this case was discretionary in nature. The student also claimed that the events that allegedly occurred in the classroom before the assault transformed him into an identifiable person subject to the threat of imminent harm and, as a result, the defense of qualified governmental immunity was not available.

The court found that genuine issues of fact existed concerning whether school officials knew or should have known of the possibility of the impending assault on the student. The atmosphere in the classroom immediately prior to the assault could reasonably have been interpreted as one in which the student was an identifiable victim subject to the threat of imminent harm. The student’s claims were not barred by the doctrine of governmental immunity as a matter of law. The teacher’s motion for summary judgment was denied.

This case was not handled by our firm. However, if you have any questions regarding this case, or any education matter, please contact Joseph Maya at 203-221-3100 or by email at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.