The Application of Governmental Immunity to School Bullying Suits

In Connecticut, the doctrine of “governmental immunity” may bar a plaintiff bullying victim from succeeding in a claim against a school district.  The general concept of governmental immunity stems from the value judgment that government officers and employees should have discretion to carry out their duties without the perpetual fear or threat of a lawsuit for any injury caused in the administration of their duties.  However, the concept of governmental immunity applies only where municipal officers are engaged in discretionary acts, as opposed to ministerial acts.  A ministerial act refers to an act “which is performed in a prescribed manner without the exercise of judgment or discretion.”[1] In other words, for a plaintiff to allege the existence of a ministerial duty, he or she must demonstrate that “the defendant was required to perform in a prescribed manner and failed to do so.”[2] Connecticut courts have generally found that the supervision of students, implementation of school policies, and control of a school and its students are carried out through discretionary acts,[3] which allow a school to invoke governmental immunity if subjected to a suit.

However, there are three exceptions to discretionary act immunity.  Liability may be imposed for a discretionary act where the conduct alleged involves malice, wantonness, or intent to injure; liability may be imposed for a discretionary act when a statute specifically provides for a cause of action against a municipality for failure to enforce certain laws; and finally, 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.”[4] It is this last exception, the identifiable person-imminent harm exception, which is relevant in school bullying cases.  The Connecticut Supreme Court has “construed this exception to apply not only to identifiable individuals, but also to narrowly defined identifiable classes of foreseeable victims.”[5] Such victims can include victims of school bullying in cases where imminent harm was foreseeable if the defendants did not act with reasonable care.  Whether it would be apparent to a school district that their actions, or inactions, would be likely to subject a plaintiff to harm will be a major factor that a court uses in determining whether a school district can be immune from a bullying suit based on governmental immunity.

If you have any questions about bullying, cyberbullying, or education law in general, do not hesitate to contact Joseph C. Maya, Esq., in our Westport office, at 203-221-3100, or at JMaya@mayalaw.com.


[1] Heigl v. New Canaan, 218 Conn. 1, 5, 587 A.2d 423 (1991).

[2] Id.

[3] Rigoli v. Town of Shelton, 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 349, at *9 (Feb. 6, 2012).

[4] Straiton v. New Milford Bd. Of Educ., 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 773, at *20 (Mar. 13, 2012), quoting Violano v. Fernandez, 280 Conn. 310, 319-20 (2006).

[5] Straiton, at *22.