Posts tagged with "negligence"

Material Issues Surrounding Circumstances of Student’s Suicide

On November 4, 2003, Terence Leary, a Wesleyan University (Wesleyan) student and pitcher on the school’s baseball team,[1] called the campus public safety officers complaining about a panic attack he was experiencing. Although Terence was transported by the officers to a nearby hospital, they simply dropped him off and departed “without further investigating or securing medical attention for him.” Soon thereafter, Terence left the hospital because he “couldn’t take it”[2] and committed suicide by drowning in a nearby creek. His death “sent ripples across the campus.”[3]

Terence’s family elected to sue Wesleyan under a negligence theory, arguing that the school “(1) hired and retained inadequate safety personnel; (2) failed to properly train its security personnel; and (3) did not follow appropriate measures for handling distressed students.”[4] It further alleged:

[T]he security personnel (1) knew or should have known that Terence Leary was in a distressed condition, had suicidal tendencies and was a threat to himself, and they failed to investigate or provide Leary with adequate care; (2) failed to make sure Terence Leary received adequate treatment at the hospital; and (3) the university failed to conduct a proper investigation into Leary’s mental history.[5]

Wesleyan filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking dismissal of the lawsuit. It countered that Terence’s death was caused by his own negligent actions; thus, they were not liable. It further contended that it owed no duty to Terence because the law does not recognize a special relationship between a university and its students.

Connecticut law does not recognize a general duty to protect others from harming themselves, unless there is a special relationship between the two parties. A “duty arises particularly in special relationships where the plaintiff is typically in some respect particularly vulnerable and dependent upon the defendant who, correspondingly, holds considerable power over the plaintiff’s welfare.”[6] Thus, a threshold inquiry is whether one party had custody or control of the other party.

In this case, the Court found that the public safety officers, as agents of Wesleyan, had custody or control of Terence, because their “status as police officers created the perception that they controlled the situation.”[7] As such, they had the ability to prevent Terence from leaving the hospital prior to receiving medical attention. The Court went to great length describing liability for “gratuitously undertaking to render services to another… [which is] based on the control that the individual has in the circumstances, and the power he assumes over the plaintiff’s welfare.”[8] A person will be liable for negligent performance of this undertaking[9] because “one [who] takes charge and control of [a] situation… is regarded as entering into a relation which is attenuated with responsibility.”[10] The Court further noted the great extent to which Wesleyan provided emergency services and information to its student body, and found that the officer’s actions actually increased the risk of harm to Terence.[11]

Finally, the Court determined that Terence’s suicide was foreseeable, even though he had not previously made any threats on the night of his death or beforehand. Based on the transcript of Terence’s emergency phone call, a security expert for the plaintiff testified that “[Wesleyan’s] public safety officials should have recognized that [Terence] was in a mental crisis and could have been harmful to himself,” but failed to follow the provisions of Wesleyan’s own public policy manual that specifically addresses how to handle student mental health crises.[12] As the Court further noted, these policies “provided evidence that the defendant was aware that suicide was a general risk, when dealing with an individual who was in mental distress.”[13] Thus, the motion for summary judgment was denied as to the negligence claim because of genuine issues of material fact related to control and custody of Terence and his mental distress when he placed the emergency call.

Increasingly, we are seeing Connecticut courts willing to hold elementary and secondary schools as well as colleges and universities responsible for tortious or negligent acts committed against students. If you personally or, if a parent, your child was the victim of an assault or other occurrence while under the supervision of school personnel, it is important that you seek an experienced school law practitioner to understand your rights and courses of action. Should you have any questions regarding negligence liability or any education law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.


[1] “Friends, family unite to share memories of Leary,” by Miriam Gottfried. Published November 14, 2003. Accessed October 8, 2012: http://wesleyanargus.com/2003/11/14/friends-family-unite-to-share-memories-of-leary/

[2] “Student’s death stuns Wesleyan community,” by Miriam Gottfried. Published November 7, 2003. Accessed October 8, 2012: http://wesleyanargus.com/2003/11/07/student%E2%80%99s-death-stuns-wesleyan-community/

[3] Id.

[4] Douglas Leary v. Wesleyan University, 2009 Conn. Super. LEXIS 621 at 2.

[5] Id.

[6] Coville v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, 57 Conn. App. 275, 281 (2000).

[7] Leary, supra at 12-13.

[8] Id. at 17-18, citing McClure v. Fairfield University, Superior Court, judicial district of Waterbury, Docket No. CV 000159028 (June 19, 2003, Gallagher, J.) (35 Conn. L. Rptr. 169, 2003 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1778)

[9] Coville, supra 57 Conn. App. 281.

[10] McClure, supra, 35 Conn. L. Rptr. 169, 2003 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1778.

[11] Leary, supra, at 22-23.

[12] Id. at 27.

[13] Id. at 33.

An Overview of Legal Issues Relating to Bullying and Cyberbullying in Connecticut

The purpose of this article is to explore the laws, statutes, and cases relating to school bullying in Connecticut, specifically “cyberbullying,” and to provide an overview of the types of legal avenues that may be available to a victim of bullying.

According to Connecticut’s General Assembly Commission on Children, “25 percent of Connecticut high school students – and 35 percent of the state’s 9th graders – report having been bullied or harassed on school property in the previous year.”[1] Furthermore, the report states that “[m]ore than 900,000 U.S. high school students reported being cyberbullied in one year.”[2] According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “Bullying may be the most underreported safety problem in American schools.”[3]

The National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC) defines cyberbullying as “similar to other types of bullying, except that it takes place online and through text messages sent to cell phones.” www.ncpc.org.  The NCPC has said that cyberbullying can take the form of:

  • Sending mean or threatening emails, instant messages, or text messages;
  • Excluding someone from an instant messenger buddy list or blocking their email for no reason;
  • Tricking someone into revealing personal or embarrassing information and sending it to others;
  • Breaking into someone’s email or instant message account to send cruel or untrue messages while posing as that person;
  • Creating websites to make fun of another person such as a classmate or teacher;
  • Using websites to rate peers as prettiest, ugliest, etc.

One recent study from Texas describes cyberbullying as bullying in which bullies use the Internet, text messaging, and similar technology, “which give an illusion to anonymity, [and] encourage bullying by those who would not normally engage in such behavior.  They also allow a bully to avoid direct confrontation with the target.”[4]

I. Conn. Gen. Stat. §10-222d

In July 2011, Governor Dannel Malloy signed Public Act 11-232 into law, marking Connecticut’s first anti-bullying legislation.  The Act, known as “An Act Concerning the Strengthening of School Bullying Laws,” defines bullying as “the repeated use by one or more students of a written, oral or electronic communication, such as cyberbullying, directed at or referring to another student attending school in the same district.”[5] The law defines cyberbullying as “any act of bullying through the use of the Internet, interactive and digital technologies, cellular mobile telephone or other mobile electronic devices or any electronic communications.”[6]

The law requires that each local and regional board of education develop and implement a specific bullying policy addressing the existence of bullying within its schools.  Specifically, the law requires the school policy to:

  • Enable students to anonymously report acts of bullying to school administrators;
  • Appoint a safe school climate coordinator to facilitate the school’s plan;
  • Enable the parents or guardians of students to file written reports of suspected bullying;
  • Require school administrators (including teachers and staff) who witness bullying or receive reports of bullying to notify a school administrator no more than one day after the employee witnesses or receives the report of bullying; and to file a written report no more than two school days after making such oral report;
  • Provide for the inclusion of language in student codes of conduct concerning bullying;
  • Require each school to notify the parents or guardians of students who commit bullying and the parents or guardians of students who are the victims of bullying, and invite them to attend at least one meeting.

The Governmental Immunity Barrier

The doctrine of governmental immunity may preclude a plaintiff in Connecticut from recovering on a claim against a school district. Where the defendants’ activities in a bullying case are discretionary, they may enjoy the defense of governmental immunity; conversely, where the defendants’ activities alleged in the complaint are ministerial, they cannot be shielded by governmental immunity.[7] A ministerial act is an act which is “performed in a prescribed manner without the exercise of judgment or discretion . . ..”  There must be a “written policy, directive, or guidelines mandating a particular course of action.”[8] If a court deems the acts and responsibilities of a school district to be ministerial, governmental immunity will not serve to provide immunity.

That distinction was tested in Santoro v. Town of Hamden. There, the Connecticut Superior Court held that plaintiffs, parents of a bullying victim, could not maintain a private cause of action under §10-222d, finding that “section 10-222d does not provide a basis for circumventing the doctrine of sovereign immunity.” As such, the court granted defendants’ motion to strike two counts of plaintiffs’ complaint on the grounds that the school district was shielded by governmental immunity.[9]

There is an exception to the immunity defense, which permits a tort action in the circumstance of “perceptible harm to an identifiable person.” Scruggs, at *70.  The “identifiable person, imminent harm exception” applies when the circumstances make it apparent to the public officer charged with the exercise of discretion that his or her failure to act would be likely to subject an identifiable person to imminent harm.  Rigoli v. Town of Shelton, 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 349, at *9 (Feb. 6, 2012).  Connecticut courts adhere to a three-pronged test.  Failure of a plaintiff to meet all three prongs will be fatal to a claim. Id. The test requires: (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.  Id. The Court in Esposito concluded that schoolchildren are a “foreseeable class to be protected.” Esposito, at *28.

II. Criminal Statutes and Cyberbullying

The 2011 revision to Connecticut’s anti-bullying statute included a new provision requiring the school principal, or the principal’s designee, “to notify the appropriate local law enforcement agency when such principal, or the principal’s designee, believes that any acts of bullying constitute criminal conduct.”[10]

Below is a non-exhaustive list of crimes that may be implicated by school bullying.

a. Criminal Harassment

Connecticut General Statute § 53a-182b, Harassment in the first degree, and 53a-183, Harassment in the second degree, are Connecticut’s criminal harassment statutes.  A person is guilty of harassment in the first degree when, “with the intent to harass, annoy, alarm or terrorize another person, he threatens to kill or physically injure that person or any other person, and communicates such threat by telephone, or by telegraph, mail, computer network, as defined in section 53a-250, or any other form of written communication, in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm and has been convicted of [a specifically enumerated felony].”

A person is guilty of harassment in the second degree when, “(1) By telephone, he addresses another in or uses indecent or obscene language; or (2) with intent to harass, annoy or alarm another person, he communicates with a person by telegraph or mail, by electronically transmitting a facsimile through connection with a telephone network, by computer network, as defined in section 53a-250, or by any other form of written communication, in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm; or (3) with intent to harass, annoy or alarm another person, he makes a telephone call, whether or not a conversation ensues, in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm.”

Not all cyberbullying, however, rises to the level of statutorily defined harassment.  As one author has noted, “it is more difficult to prosecute bullies under anti-harassment or anti-stalking statutes due to the mens rea requirement in criminal proceedings . . . [and] thus, criminal statutes do not offer victims of cyberbullying a viable option to seek redress against their harassers.”[11]

b. Bias Crimes

A person is guilty of intimidation based on bigotry or bias when such person maliciously, and with specific intent to intimidate or harass another person because of the actual or perceived race, religion, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression of such other person, causes serious physical injury to such other person or to a third person.[12] Furthermore, a person is guilty of intimidation based on bigotry or bias when such person maliciously, and with specific intent to intimidate or harass another person because of the actual or perceived race, religion, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression of such other person, does any of the following:

–          Causes physical contact with such other person;

–          Damages, destroys or defaces any real or personal property of such other person; or

–          Threatens, by word or act, described in subdivision (1) or (2) of this subsection, if there is reasonable cause to believe that an act described in subdivision (1) or (2) of this subsection will occur.[13]

In an action for damages resulting from intimidation based on bigotry or bias, any person injured in person or property as a result of such an act may bring a civil action against the person who committed such act to recover damages for such injury.  Where a plaintiff in such an action prevails, the court shall award treble damages and may award equitable relief and reasonable attorneys’ fees in its discretion.[14]

c. Criminal Threats

Under Connecticut law, a person is guilty of threatening when: (1) by physical threat, such person intentionally places or attempts to place another person in fear of imminent serious physical injury; (2) such person threatens to commit any crime of violence with the intent to terrorize another person; or (3) such person threatens to commit such crime of violence in reckless disregard of the risk of causing such terror.[15]

III. Other Legal Issues Relating to Cyberbullying

a. Defamation/Slander

In Connecticut, “a defamatory statement is defined as a communication that tends to harm the reputation of another as to lower him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him.”[16] To establish a prima facie case of defamation, a plaintiff must show that: (1) the defendant published a defamatory statement; (2) the defamatory statement identified the plaintiff to a third person; (3) the defamatory statement was published to a third person; and (4) the plaintiffs reputation suffered injury as a result of the statement.”  Id.

Cyberbullying by means of social networking sites such as Twitter or Facebook may give rise to defamation claims, if the plaintiff can meet all of the elements of defamation in Connecticut.  Sometimes, however, “the tortious statements are not necessarily published or widely disseminated to cause harm, but are specifically aimed at inflicting distress on a particular target based on the content of the communication itself . . ..”[17]

Therefore, defamation might not be a viable claim if the hurtful speech or writing is not disseminated to a wide enough audience.  It is, however, an avenue to be explored.

b. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

In order for a plaintiff to prevail in an intentional infliction of emotional distress cause of action, the plaintiff must show: (1) that the actor intended to inflict emotional distress, or that he knew or should have known that emotional distress was likely a result of his conduct; (2) that the conduct was extreme and outrageous; (3) that the defendant’s conduct was the cause of the plaintiff’s distress, and (4) that the emotional distress sustained by the plaintiff was severe.”[18] In order for liability to be imposed, the conduct must exceed “all bounds usually tolerated by decent  of a very serious kind.”[19]

Though it can be difficult to prove that the conduct was of such a level as to be intolerable by any measure of societal standards, egregious cases of cyberbullying may gave rise to successful IIED claims.  To prove an IIED claim, there is no requirement that the plaintiff suffer any physical harm.  As the Connecticut Supreme Court stated in Whelan v. Whelan, “The enormity of the outrage carries conviction that there has in fact been severe mental distress which is neither figured or trivial so that bodily harm is not required.”[20] It should be noted that “mere insults, indignities, threats, petty oppressions, or other trivialities” will not give rise to a successful IIED claim.[21]

An interesting facet of IIED law in Connecticut, and one that may apply to cyberbullying claims, is the invocation of the continuing course of conduct argument. While IIED has a three-year statute of limitations, the Connecticut Supreme Court has stated: “Courts that have applied the continuing course of conduct doctrine to claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress have done so on the ground that it is the repetition of the misconduct that makes it extreme and outrageous.  Watts v. Chittenden, 301 Conn. 575 (2011).  In other words, a cause of action for IIED might not begin to accrue until plaintiff has endured such a repetitive course of conduct such that it has amounted to conduct that is extreme and outrageous.

In a 2003 case, the Connecticut Superior Court denied defendants’ motion to strike plaintiff-student’s claim for IIED, where the defendant co-conspirators locked the plaintiff in a locker, doused him with water, and threatened him with electrocution.[22]

Conversely, in Brodsky v. Trumbull, the court declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiff’s state-law IIED claim, having granted summary judgment as to all of plaintiff’s federal claims in favor of defendants.[23]

c. Negligence

Many bullying cases sound in negligence. In a 2007 case, plaintiff parents alleged that defendant school district owed their son, the victim, “a duty to protect him and prevent intentional harm, provide him with a safe and productive learning environment, and supervise students at [the school] to prevent the alleged acts which harmed [plaintiff].”[24] The Court, finding that plaintiff did not make a proper showing of entitlement to the “identifiable person-imminent harm exception to governmental immunity for tort claims” (discussed infra), granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the state-law negligence claim.

In Esposito, plaintiff student, a victim of bullying, brought an action alleging that the defendant school district, town, and the individual defendants were negligent in failing to follow its own bullying policies, thereby failing to ensure that plaintiff could attend school in a harassment-free environment.[25] Unlike in Scruggs, the court in Esposito denied the school board’s motion for summary judgment, finding that governmental immunity did not apply and that the plaintiff met the identifiable person-imminent harm exception, as “schoolchildren are a foreseeable class to be protected.” Id.

Finally, the doctrine of negligent supervision, codified at Conn. Gen. Law 52-572, may be available as a claim against the parents of a bully.

d. Recklessness

In a 2010 decision, a Connecticut court denied defendant school district’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the student-plaintiff stated a plausible cause of action based on the defendants’ “reckless and wanton” supervision of plaintiff’s fellow classmates.[26] The court found that the defendant school board “offered no argument as to why a claim of common-law recklessness [was] not cognizable,” given the specific facts of the case.[27]

e. Privacy Tort Laws

The emergence of cyberbullying by means of Facebook and Twitter and other social networking sites may give rise claims sounding in tort privacy laws.  Connecticut recognizes four distinct kinds of invasion of privacy torts.[28] Connecticut first recognized a cause of action for invasion of privacy in Goodrich v. Waterbury Republican, Inc., 188 Conn. 107 (1982), in which the Supreme Court clarified that the invasion of one’s privacy developed into “four distinct kinds of invasion of four different interests,” each of which “represents an interference of the right of the plaintiff to be let alone.”  Goodrich, at 125.

The four categories of invasion of privacy are: (1) unreasonable intrusion upon the seclusion of another; (2) appropriation of the other’s name of likeness; (3) unreasonable publicity given to the other’s private life; or (4) publicity which unreasonably places the other in a false light before the public. Id.; 3 Restatement (2d) of Torts.

A cyberbullying claim may implicate the third cause of action – unreasonable publicity given to the other’s private life, and may also implicate the fourth cause of action – false light.  To successfully allege a false light claim, a plaintiff must allege that “defendant gave publicity to a matter concerning the plaintiff.”  Goodrich.  “Publicity” refers to a matter made public through communication “to the public at large or to so many persons that the matter must be regarded as substantially certain to become one of public knowledge.”  3 Restatement of Torts (2d) §252d comment A.  The Restatement clarifies that publication do a small group of people will not give rise to a false light cause of action.   

f. Free Speech

A 2011 article in Law Technology News questioned how Connecticut’s anti-bullying law would fare in the face of free speech issues, noting that “[t]he new law puts school officials in the position of having to pass judgment on off-campus speech with little legal precedent to guide them . . . If they clamp down on online comments, they risk First Amendment challenges.  If they’re too lenient, they could be deemed responsible if cyberbullying leads to tragedy.”[29]

What worries some officials and lawmakers is the prospect of the regulation of speech that doesn’t take place on school grounds.  Legal Director of the ACLU of Connecticut Sandra Staub stated during testimony in March of this year that “simply plugging the phrase ‘cyberbullying’ into the current statute on bullying policies will encourage and allow schools to regulate children’s speech and conduct while they are in their own homes.”[30] Essentially, Staub’s argument sounds in the notion that what children do in their own homes is under the control of their parents, who, pursuant to the United States Supreme Court, have a due process right to raise their children in the manner they see fit.  Permitting schools to regulate such speech turns schools into internet police.  Instead, Staub suggests that it is the school’s responsibility to provide an education that instills in students the means by which to deal with conflicts in an appropriate manner.

g.  Federal Claims

Victims of bullying have brought substantive due process claims against school districts and school district officials. See, Risica ex rel. Risica v. Dumas, 466 F. Supp. 2d 434 (D. Conn. 2006) (granting defendant school district’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that the School’s failure to prevent continued bullying did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation because the school had no constitutional duty to prevent student-on-student harassment).

Finally, where bullying is based on sexual harassment, a plaintiff may have a cause of action under Title IX of the Education Amendments. See, Brodsky, at *19 (granting defendant school board’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that defendants acted reasonably and expeditiously in response to any alleged harassment against plaintiff student).  In order to successfully allege a student-on-student sexual harassment claim, the Supreme Court of the United States has clarified that the school administration must have “acted with deliberate indifference to known acts of harassment . . . [and the] harassment [must have been] so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.”[31]

IV. Conclusion

With the popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, cyberbullying is as prevalent a problem as ever.  Schools around the country are taking steps to eradicate bullying of all kinds, but for the time being, it is everywhere.  Bullying issues can be handled by attorneys with experience in education law.  Navigating the school district system can be difficult, frustrating, and intimidating, and without the right guidance, you may find yourself reaching dead ends.  If you find yourself with questions relating to bullying, cyberbullying, or education law in general, do not hesitate to contact an attorney in our Westport, Fairfield County office, at 203-221-3100.


[1] Conn. Gen. Assembly Commission on Children, Anti-Bullying Bill Becomes Law, available at http://www.cga.ct.gov/coc/PDFs/bullying/2011_bullying_law.pdf (July 21, 2011).

[2] Id.

[3] http://www.cops.usdoj.gov/Default.asp?Item=2460

[4] Bullying: Legislative Changes, Texas Assc. of School Boards, Legal Servs., available at http://www.tasbrmf.org/training/conference/documents/2012conference_handouts/bullying.pdf.

[5] Conn. Gen. Law §10-222d(a)(1)

[6] Id.

[7] Estate of Girard v. Town of Putnam, 2011 Conn. Super. LEXIS 306 (Conn. Super. Ct. Jan. 28, 2011).

[8] Rigoli v. Town of Shelton, 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 349 (Conn. Super. Ct. Feb. 6, 2012).

[9] Santoro, 2006 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2418, at *9 (Aug. 18, 2006); see also, Karlen v. Westport Bd. Of Educ., 638 F. Supp. 2d 293, 302 (D. Conn. 2009) (dismissing plaintiff’s claim pursuant to Connecticut’s anti-bullying statute because the statute does not provide for a private cause of action).

[10] Public Act No. 11-232.

[11] Todd D. Erb, Comment, A Case for Strengthening School District Jurisdiction to Punish Off-Campus Incidents of Cyberbullying, 40 Ariz. St. L.J. 257, 279 (2008).

[12] Conn. Gen. Stat. §53a-181j.

[13] Conn. Gen. Stat. §53a-181k.

[14] Conn. Gen. Stat. §52-571c.

[15] Conn. Gen. Stat. §53a-62.

[16] Cweklinsky v. Mobil Chem. Co., 267 Conn. 210, 217 (2004).

[17] Andrew S. Kaufman, Cyberbullying and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, 245 New York Law Journal 27, Feb. 9, 2011.

[18] Peytan v. Ellis, 200 Conn. 243 (1986).

[19] Id., quoting Prosser & Keeton, Torts, 5th ed. 12, page 60.

[20] Whelan v. Whelan, 41 Conn. Sup. 519, 522 (1991).

[21] Restatement 2d.

[22] Gasper v. Sniffin, 2003 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1363 (Conn. Super. Ct. May 6, 2003).

[23] Brodsky v. Trumbull Bd. Of Educ., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8799, at *28 (D. Conn. Jan. 30, 2009).

[24] Scruggs v. Meriden Bd. Of Educ., 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 58517, 67-68 (D. Conn. Aug. 7, 2007).

[25] Esposito v. Town of Bethany, 2010 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1050, at *1 (Conn. Super. Ct. May 3, 2010).

[26] Dornfried v. Berlin Bd. of Educ., 2010 Conn. Super. LEXIS 2537 (Conn. Super. Ct. Oct. 4, 2010).

[27] Id., at *8.

[28] Law Offices of Frank N. Peluso, P.C. v. Rendahl, 2012 Ct. Sup. 2356 (Aug. 15, 2012).

[29] Jacqueline Rabe, New Conn. ‘Cyberbullying’ Law Prompts Free Speech Debate, Law Technology News (Sept. 7, 2011).

[30] Sandra Staub, Written Testimony Opposing Raised Bill No. 1138 An Act Concerning the Strengthening of School Bullying Laws.

[31] Davis v. Monroe Cnty. Bd. of Educ., 526 U.S. 629, 633 (1999).

Negligence Claims Against School Following Son’s Suicide

Plaintiff’s Negligence Claims Against School Following Son’s Suicide Survive Motion to Strike, Proceeds Further Into Litigation

Michael Girard was a senior at Putnam High School during the 2005-2006 academic year when his guidance counselor learned that he was suicidal and/or had threatened to kill himself. However, the counselor took no action to aid Michael despite a conversation with him about the threat, and simply let him leave for home by himself. Michael also “expressed an intention to harm or kill himself in the presence of employees and agents of the High School, Board of Education, and Town” while on school grounds during school hours. Once again, no official action was taken by any of these individuals.

On March 23, 2006, Michael committed suicide by methadone toxicity.

At the time of Michael’s death, Putnam schools had a Suicide Prevention Policy (policy) in effect in the district. It set forth “detailed guidelines” on actions for staff to take when confronted with a scenario such as Michael’s. It required “immediate notification of emergency personnel or school psychologist or social worker,” and stated, “Under no circumstances is a student allowed to go home. The student must be released only to a parent, guardian, or other responsible adult.”

In light of this policy, Michael’s parents filed a negligence lawsuit against the Town of Putnam, Board of Education, and various school employees, including the guidance counselor (collectively “defendants”). However, the defendants submitted a motion to strike, challenging the legal sufficiency of the amended complaint’s allegations. They argued on two fronts:

  • “The act of suicide is a deliberate and intentional act” absolving the defendants from liability. In other words, because Michael’s death was an unforeseeable, intentional tort, the defendants were could not be sued for negligence.
  • The defendants also claimed governmental immunity protection, pursuant to Connecticut General Statutes §§ 52-557n and 52-557n(b)(6). “[M]unicipalities and its employees may be exposed to liability for acts of negligence unless the function involved the exercise of discretion,” and there is no immunity for ministerial acts (exercise of judgment and discretion not allowed). In essence, the defendants argued that whether to follow the policy was “a discretionary function.”

The Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Windham at Putnam denied the motion to strike as to these claims. It noted that while “suicide generally is an unforeseeable result that serves to preclude liability,” it does not automatically “break the chain of causation if it was a foreseeable result of the defendant’s tortious act.” In this case, the Court determined that Michael’s suicide “could be a foreseeable result of school staff’s failure to follow the suicide prevention policy.” As further explained:

It is foreseeable that if a person declares an intent to commit suicide, suicide is a foreseeable risk if nothing is done. Indeed, it was the written policy of the Putnam High School to immediately safeguard a student and obtain emergency medical or professional assessment and counseling for such a student in that circumstance. That is a clear cut warning of the need to take action. It creates a foreseeable harm as a consequence of a failure to act. No reasonable staff member could have concluded otherwise…

In addition, the Court was not persuaded by the defendants’ second argument. “[T]he Suicide Prevention Policy, by its terms, resolved that staff members are not qualified to assess whether someone is suicidal and it forbids discretion or delay in sending a student, who threatens suicide, to someone who is qualified to make the assessment.” When a staff member faces a situation like Michael’s, they must “follow their own mandatory procedures after a ministerial duty was triggered.” Therefore, the governmental immunity protection was inapplicable.

Ultimately, the Court granted the motion to strike as to intentional infliction of emotional distress claims (as to the parents), but permitted the negligence claims related to Michael’s death to proceed further into litigation. “The plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to show that the defendants committed negligent acts that increased the risk of accomplishment of a suicide by [Michael], and that their negligence was a substantial factor in causing that harm.”

Jury selection and the start of the trial are scheduled to begin at 9:30am on October 16, 2012. The case is Estate of Michael Girard et al. v. Town of Putnam et al., CV-08-5002754-S.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

Should you have any questions about school liability or other education law matters, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

Bullying In Schools: Are We Doing Enough to Protect Children?

Bullying In Schools: Are We Doing Enough to Protect Children?

On September 22, 2010, Seth Walsh should have been skateboarding or playing baseball, listening to his new favorite song, perhaps, or talking on the phone with friends.  He should have been happy and care free.  After all, Seth was only thirteen years old, an age when children should be laughing and dreaming of the endless opportunities that lie ahead.  Instead, Seth Walsh was lying beneath a tree in his backyard unconscious, no longer breathing.  He had just hung himself.  After spending the next week on life support, with his mother looking on, Seth ultimately died.

And just days earlier on the other side of the country, Tyler Climenti, an eighteen year old student at Rutgers posted what would be his last Facebook message, “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” Later that night Tyler took his own life as well- throwing himself into the dark and frigid water of the Hudson River.

In September, 2010, within nineteen days, four teenagers from around the country committed suicide.  William Lucas, from Greensburg Indiana was only fifteen, Asher Brown from Houston Texas was thirteen.  Like Seth, Billy hung himself.  Asher shot himself in the head with one of his step-father’s guns.  The common link?  All four had been relentlessly tormented at school.  Shining new light on what has become a national epidemic, these cases illuminate the devastating and increasingly deadly effects of bullying.  There is some debate over whether bullying is a new phenomenon or whether children are simply reacting differently.  Whatever the case may be, one thing is clear- we must take action to protect the destruction of more innocent lives.

The Department of Education recently entered the fray, releasing a “Dear Colleague” letter in which it urged school districts to address bullying within the classroom, providing school administrators with guidance on how to end harassment.  Additionally, within the last couple of years, many states, including New York and Connecticut, have passed anti-bulling legislation.  At what point should a school district be held liable when it fails to prevent bullying?  The answer to that question is not clear-cut.  Indeed, parents face several legal challenges when they pursue a case.

For instance, in 2008, the Superior Court at New Britain held that parents of a Berlin High School student could not maintain a negligence cause of action against the school district, the administrators or the child’s coach.  In Dornfried v. Berlin Board of Education, et al, Robby Dornfried’s parents alleged that while a freshman and sophomore at the high school, and a place-kicker on the varsity football team, their son was subjected to “incessant bullying, harassment, intimidation and was the victim of threats and/or acts of violence” by his teammates.  They further alleged that school administrators, the guidance counselor, even Robby’s coach, knew of the problem, but did nothing to stop the behavior.  Robby eventually sought medical treatment and ultimately transferred to Northwest Catholic High School halfway though his sophomore year.

Analyzing whether the principal of governmental immunity barred suit, the Court recited the general rule that a municipal employee may be liable for the misperformance of ministerial acts, but has qualified immunity in the performance of governmental acts- those performed wholly for the benefit of the public and supervisory or discretionary in nature.  Agreeing with the defendants, the Court found that the supervision of school children, not only during school hours, but at extra-curricular events such as football practice or a football game is a discretionary matter.  It next addressed whether it was appropriate to apply any of the exceptions to the immunity doctrine.  Generally, there are three:

  1. Liability may be imposed for a discretionary act when the alleged conduct involved malice, wantonness or intent to injure.
  2. Liability may be imposed for a discretionary act when a statute provides for a cause of action against a municipality or municipal official for failure to enforce certain laws.
  3. Liability may be imposed when the circumstances make it apparent to the public officer that his or her failure to act would be likely to subject an identifiable person to imminent harm.

Ignoring the first two exceptions, the Court addressed whether Robby was an “identifiable person subject to imminent harm” under the law.  Citing Supreme Court precedent, Judge Trombley, found he was not, 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, the participation is on a purely voluntary basis and, therefore, governmental immunity barred Robby’s negligence claims.

Earlier this year the Superior Court at New Haven reached a different conclusion in a bullying case.  In Esposito v. Town of Bethany, et al, the father of an elementary school student brought suit against the Town of Bethany, the Board of Education and the Bethany Public School District alleging negligence.  The student, Christina, was allegedly teased on a regular basis and at one point another student threw a ball at the back of her head during recess.  Christina sustained severe injuries “leaving her with an acquired brain injury and severe optical dysfunction.”

In response to Connecticut’s anti-bulling legislation, which became effective July, 2002, the Town of Bethany adopted a comprehensive anti-bullying policy.  The Plaintiff’s pointed to that policy arguing that the school failed to follow it and, thus, their acts were ministerial rather than discretionary in nature.  The Court framed the issue as whether, “…a detailed method of behavior was laid down for administrators and teachers for dealing with bullying depriving them of any judgment or discretion, or that, actions were dictated to deal with the problem that involved merely the execution of an established policy.”  Leaving this question unanswered, the Court ultimately erred on the side of caution, allowing the plaintiff an opportunity to present the facts at trial.

Later in its decision the Court addressed whether the “identifiable person subject to imminent harm” exception would apply if the school’s actions were in fact discretionary.  In doing so, the Court hinted at expanding its view of the doctrine in the context of school bullying.  The Court interpreted prior case law as suggesting that the only identifiable class of foreseeable victims is that of school children attending school during school hours, but went on to suggest, “[b]ut if a clearly identifiable person, child or adult, is exposed to imminent harm then the exception could apply also if that individual is exposed to imminent harm,” continuing, “an individual may be identifiable for purposes of the exception to qualified immunity if the harm occurs within a limited temporal and geographical zone, involving a temporary condition.”

In ruling in Christina’s favor, the court also noted that the appellate courts have relaxed the “identifiable person” portion of the analysis as it pertains to school children stating simply, “they are a foreseeable class to be protected.”  The Court concluded it must assume a similarly protective attitude will be applied in examining the “imminent harm” requirement stating, “bullying is condemned by state statute, children must attend schools, children are not as capable of defending themselves, they are vulnerable in the entire school area where unsupervised conduct prevails, and the bullying concept includes… a particular child subject to these acts.”

Whether a victim of bullying will be successful in bringing a claim against a school district will depend heavily on the facts and circumstances of the case as well as the theory of liability, the state in which the claims are made and the causes of action asserted.   As set forth above, in Connecticut governmental immunity may preclude recovery altogether unless the victim can demonstrate the application of an exception is appropriate.

By: Michael D. DeMeola

If you have any questions regarding bullying in schools, or any special education law matter, please contact Joseph Maya at 203-221-3100 or by email at JMaya@MayaLaw.com.