Wrongful Death and Sovereign Immunity

Wrongful death cases can be really challenging when the defendant is a school with sovereign immunity issues to tackle. Schools are entrusted with a considerable responsibility to safeguard the well-being of the children under their supervision.

Notwithstanding the significant effort most teachers place in this task, unfortunate events do happen. For instance, the Georgia Court of Appeals recently resolved a case involving the untimely death of a student left temporarily unsupervised in an Atlanta classroom.

Viewed favorably to the plaintiffs in this action, the parents of the aforementioned deceased student, the evidence is as follows. The plaintiffs’ child was a student in a local high school, and at the time of the acts leading to his unfortunate death, he was in a literature class. The classroom in which this class was held shared an entrance with another classroom that was otherwise separated by a movable wall. During class, the teacher left the room. While the teacher was gone, the victim and another student were involved in some horseplay, which led the victim to fall to the floor and the other participant to land on him. The teacher returned and found that several students had left. She left again, and subsequent to this second departure, the victim collapsed and went unconscious. When the teacher returned later, the student remained on the floor. The teacher called emergency services, and the student was taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead. An exam revealed that the death was caused by blood loss caused by the laceration of a major blood vessel by a dislocated bone in the student’s shoulder.

Following the student’s death, the principal called the teacher and other staff to get more information about the event. The teacher lied and said that she was in the classroom, that she stopped the aforementioned horseplay, and that she did not notice anything out of sorts following the encounter. Upon a subsequent investigation, the principal learned that the teacher was not in fact in the room. An outside company that also performed an investigation also confirmed that the teacher left the room. The principal confronted the teacher about the lies, and the teacher came up with several reasons for her departure. Ultimately, at her deposition, the teacher testified that she left the room to use the restroom located down the hall. She stated that she asked the teacher in the adjoining room to supervise the class.  The other teacher told the investigatory company that he was asked to supervise the room and that he did so from his adjoining classroom. The teacher further testified that she returned to the classroom at around 3:00 p.m., about 15 minutes after leaving the first time, and discovered that several students had left. She stated that the student was seated at the time, and nothing seemed extraordinary. She then left again to find the absconders. The teacher testified that she returned again about 15 minutes later to find the student on the ground unresponsive.

Following this tragic string of events, the parents of the student brought suit against, among other parties, the teacher. The plaintiffs argued, inter alia, that the teacher’s decision to leave the classroom unsupervised, in contravention of school policies governing supervision, was negligent and contributed to their son’s death. Following discovery, the teacher moved for summary judgment, arguing that her decision to leave the classroom was a discretionary act entitled to official immunity. The trial court concurred with the defendant’s reasoning and granted the motion. The plaintiffs then brought this appeal.

Sadly for the plaintiffs, Georgia law provides broad official immunity protection to public employees. Indeed, Subsection (d) of Art. I, Sec. II, Par. IX of the state constitution provides that although public employees “may be liable for injuries . . . if they act with . . . malice or . . . intent to cause injury in the performance of . . . official functions” they generally “shall not be subject to suit  . . . for the performance . . . of . . . official functions.” “Official functions” means “act[s] performed within [an] . . . employee’s scope of authority, [which] includ[es] both ministerial and discretionary acts.” Gilbert v. Richardson, 264 Ga. 744, 753 (1994).

In interpreting this provision, the Supreme Court has held that there is “no immunity for [a] ministerial act[] negligently performed or . . . ministerial or discretionary acts performed with malice or . . . intent to injure” but there is, however, “immunity for . . . negligent[ly] perform[ed] . . . discretionary acts.” Id.

Although courts have often struggled to distinguish ministerial conduct from discretionary conduct, it is well-settled that the task of supervising students is discretionary. Wright v. Ashe, 220 Ga. App. 91, 94 (1996). Furthermore, it has been held that official immunity applies to this discretionary conduct even if “specific school policies designed to help . . . monitor students have been violated.” Chamlee v. Henry Cnty. Bd. of Educ., 239 Ga. App. 183, 184 (1999).
Accordingly, even though the plaintiff argued that school policy requiring that the teacher supervise her students rendered her decision to leave the room a ministerial act, the existence of the policy was not, in isolation, dispositive. See id.

On the contrary, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the teacher’s exercise of discretion in asking her neighboring teacher to monitor her room during her absence evidenced the sort of discretionary decision-making regarding how to comply with the rule that showed the act was discretionary. See, e.g., Grammens v. Dollar, 287 Ga. 618, 620-21 (2010) (holding that a teacher was entitled to official immunity because even though school policy required the wearing of protective eyewear during activities with “explosive materials,” the policy did not define the term and thus left the teacher with the need to deliberate about whether the eyewear would be necessary under the circumstances, rendering the conduct discretionary). Since the court’s role is not to review a public employee’s “judgment in hindsight,” id. at 619, the Court of Appeals ruled that the teacher was indeed entitled to official immunity and affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the claims against her.

Although the court’s decision applied clearly established law, the breadth of the official immunity doctrine remains surprising to many people unfamiliar with the law. Indeed, given the substantial role official immunity and other related sovereign immunity doctrines can have on the viability of cases brought against governmental entities, one should consider finding counsel experienced in negligence law before undertaking legal action to redress harms caused by the possible negligence of the government. The Atlanta wrongful death attorneys at Christopher Simon Attorney at Law are experienced in bringing cases against all types of defendants, and they are prepared to help you with a potential claim. If you have recently been harmed and are interested in your legal options, feel free to contact us and schedule a complimentary case evaluation.