A recent sad case from the Second Circuit Court of Appeal demonstrates how difficult statute interpretation can be. Adrienne Breana Howard was a high school student in Rayville, LA. Struck by an oncoming school bus when she was either pushed or fell off the sidewalk and into the street, Breana tragically died from her injuries.
Breana’s mother filed suit against a number of parties, including specific employees of the Richland Parish School Board. The rationale was that Breana and another student, Courtney McClain, were in the midst of a physical altercation on the sidewalk at the time of the accident. The suit argued this fight which would have been easily visible to any school staff supervising the area. Moreover, Breana had been expelled from Rayville High School precisely because of her ongoing dispute with Courtney. Thus, teachers had notice of the relationship between Breana and Courtney. The suit thus alleged instructors on duty should have been on the lookout, seen the altercation and stopped it in a timely fashion.
The allegations brought included failure to supervise, failure to stop the fight in a timely manner and instead allowing the students to continue fighting uninterrupted, failure to adequately staff the bus area, failure to provide a safe environment on campus and failure to have designated bus safety areas. These are largely negligent omissions.
When reviewing the case, the court was faced with determining if a cause of action be brought against these individual School Board employees. The Second Circuit Court of Appeal originally ruled that it could, but changed its position after the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that no cause of action could be brought against them. The disagreement turned on the courts’ interpretation of one word: “acts.”
The relevant Louisiana statute precludes a cause of action against school board employees when they are acting in the course and scope of their duties as defined by the school board. A cause of action is precluded for acts and statements made in such circumstances, but there is no reference to omissions. The Second Circuit had first interpreted “acts” as excluding omissions, with such a reading allowing a cause of action to be brought against the employees. However, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that “acts” includes “omissions” and, thus, the employees were still protected by the statute because their alleged omissions were in the course and scope of their duties.
In order to have a cause of action against the school board employees at issue in the case, Breana’s mother would need to have alleged that the acts (or omissions) were made outside the scope and duty of the employees’ duties. With this ruling, she is limited in her cause of action against these particular employees of the school board as individuals but may still have a cause of action against the Richland Parish School Board due to their overarching standing as top leadership. This is in keeping with the doctrine of “respondent superior,” which holds an employer liable for employees’ actions.
All of the events involved in this matter are inherently tragic and have irreversibly changed the lives of those involved. Unfortunately, items like this happen all too often. Whether an unfortunate death like in the case above, or a simple injury, school-related injuries can be an avoidable event that carry specific legal requirements and expectations for all involved.
For legal advice if someone you know is injured, contact the Berniard Law Firm.