Court Gives Plaintiff in Bullying Case Green Light to Proceed to Trial

In August 2006 Robert and Louise Dornfried filed suit against the Berlin Board of Education, its former and current superintendents,  the principal, the athletic director and the coach of Berlin High School football team on behalf of their minor son, Robby.  Robby’s parents alleged on their son’s behalf that, while a student at the high school and a place-kicker on the varsity football team, he was subjected to “incessant bullying, harassment, intimidation and was the victim of threats and/or acts of violence” by his teammates.

The parents further alleged that they complained of the misconduct to various school administrators, who, despite their knowledge of the behavior, did nothing to stop it.  As a result, Robby was allegedly forced to seek “medical care and treatment” and, halfway through his sophomore year, transferred to Northwest Catholic High School. Robby’s parents brought suit alleging negligence against the various defendants, claiming they knew or should have known that Robby was subjected to incessant bullying, harassment, intimidation, threats and/or acts of violence, but failed to take any action to prohibit, prevent, or even deter such conduct.

In a separate count, the parents claimed the principal, the athletic director and the football coach were reckless in their failure to stop the inappropriate behavior of Robby’s teammates, claiming they exhibited “a blatant and utter disregard for [Robby’s] safety and wellbeing.”  Notably, as permitted by Connecticut law, the plaintiff sought punitive damages under this count. The defendants initially attacked the plaintiff’s suit filing a motion to strike the negligence claims.

Granting the defendants’ motion, the Court held that the principal of governmental immunity barred the negligence claims because, as a general rule, a municipal employee has qualified immunity in the performance of acts that are discretionary in nature.  Although there is an exception when the injured party is an “identifiable person subject to imminent harm,” the Court held that Robby did not fall within that exception, explaining the only identifiable class of foreseeable victims the courts have recognized is that of school children attending public schools during school hours.  The Court ultimately held that, although participation in school sponsored athletic programs is most likely encouraged, participation is on a purely voluntary basis and, therefore, any resulting liability is barred by the doctrine of governmental immunity.  Significantly, although Robby was foreclosed from pursuing his negligence claims, his claim under a theory of recklessness, allowing for the recovery of punitive damages, was left intact. More recently, however, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment attempting to eliminate that cause of action as well.  The defendants essentially claimed that, with respect to the plaintiff’s recklessness count, there are no factual issues in dispute and that as a matter of law, they are entitled to a judgment in their favor.

The court denied the defendants’ motion, however, preserving the plaintiff’s case, as well as the potential for punitive damages.  Explaining its decision, the Court first noted that Robby’s parents alleged the defendants had actual knowledge of the bullying yet failed to act, resulting in further escalation of the bullying, and that the defendants knew their failure to act would result in further harm to Robby.  Significantly, the Court then explained that summary judgment should not be used in cases that concern important public issues or questions of inference as to motive or intent, or ones that involve subjective feelings and reactions.

Citing various factual disputes in this particular case, the Court ultimately held that it is “suffused with subjective impressions, intent, motive and pubic issues which do not easily conform to the standards of summary judgment.” This ruling is significant, in part, because, as mentioned, the plaintiffs alleged that the school system, as well as various administrators, were not just negligent, but were actually reckless in their failure to respond to the bullying in question, thus exposing the school system not only to actual or compensatory damages, but punitive damages as well.  This decision is also significant because, although there is always a potential that such rulings will be appealed, the Court effectively gave the plaintiffs a green light to proceed to trial.

By:       Michael DeMeola, Esq.

If you have any questions regarding a school bullying case, or any education law matter, contact Joseph Maya at 203-221-3100 or by email at JMaya@MayaLaw.com.