Common in Louisiana middle schools is a disciplinary program that requires students who engage in acts of moderately serious misbehavior to stay after school in “detention.” To reinforce the punitive nature of the program, many schools require a student who stays late for detention to find his or her own means of transportation home. Presumably, this requires the involvement of a parent or other responsible adult who would then be made aware of the student’s misbehavior, and who could help the student correct the problem. The scope of a school’s responsibility for a student’s safety after she left school grounds following detention arose in the case of S.J. v. Lafayette Parish School Board, No. 2009-C-2195 (La. 2010).
On November 4, 2004, a twelve-year-old, female sixth-grader, “C.C.,” stayed after school at Lafayette Middle School to serve detention. When detention concluded at around 4:00 PM, C.C. left the school with another student and walked to a nearby fast food restaurant. The two girls parted ways at the restaurant and as C.C. made her way home, she was attacked and raped by an unknown male assailant. C.C. and her mother filed a lawsuit suit against the school board, arguing that the board, through its employees at Lafayette Middle School, had failed to exercise reasonable supervision over C.C., which resulted in her being assaulted. The trial court granted the board’s motion for summary judgment on the basis that the board “had no duty to safeguard a child’s well-being after the child leaves the school property,” and dismissed the action. The Louisiana Court of Appeal affirmed this decision, but it was then reversed by the Louisiana Supreme Court and remanded for trial. After a bench trial, the court found no negligence on the part of the school board and dismissed the plaintiffs’ action. In particular, the court noted that the school discharged its duty to C.C. and the other students who stayed for detention by ensuring that none of them was left behind at the school after detention concluded without a way home. On appeal, a three-judge majority of the five-judge panel of the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court. The panel found liability on the school board’s part based largely on a Louisiana statute that requires schools to provide transportation to students who live more than a mile from campus. La. Rev. Stat. 17:158(A)(1). The panel concluded the school breached its duty to C.C. by disallowing her from riding home on the after-hours bus, which was reserved for students who stayed after school for non-disciplinary reasons, and further by denying her access to a school telephone to call her mother for a ride.
On appeal, the Louisiana Supreme Court reviewed the elements a plaintiff must prove in a negligence action (duty, breach, causation, and actual damages), and noted that “whether a duty is owed is a question of law; whether a defendant has breached a duty owed is a question of fact.” The court began its analysis by observing that “it is well-settled that the duty imposed on a school board with regard to children in its care is one of ‘reasonable supervision.’” La. Civ. Code Arts. 2315; 2320. With respect to the question of whether this duty is expanded by the statute requiring school boards to provide free transportation for students to and from campus, the court answered that it does not. Doing so would “make a school board responsible for any and all injuries sustained by ‘any student,’ regardless of time, distance, and intervening factors, when those injuries would not have been suffered if the student had just been provided a free ride home.”
The court noted that its review was conducted according to the “clearly erroneous” standard and that, accordingly, it was limited to determining “whether the trial court manifestly erred in finding that plaintiffs failed to prove a breach of the School Board’s duty of reasonable supervision owed to C.C. in proportion to her age and the accompanying circumstances.” In reviewing the facts produced at trial, the court found that the evidence supported the trial court’s determination of witness credibility as well as its factual conclusions that C.C. was not denied access to a telephone and that she failed to make use of numerous alternative options for getting home. Thus, in the opinion of the court, Lafayette Middle School did not violate the duty of reasonable supervision it owed to C.C. Accordingly, the court reversed the Court of Appeal’s decision and reinstated the trial court’s judgment which had dismissed C.C.’s action.
Although the procedural details of this case are convoluted, it is instructive to note that its resolution ultimately turned on the basic principles of Louisiana negligence law. Once the extent of the duty owed to C.C. by the school was confirmed by the state Supreme Court (a question of law), the trial court’s determination that no breach occurred (a question of fact) was deemed appropriate and left intact. For any plaintiff, the expertise of counsel well versed in negligence law is invaluable to winning the case.
If you have been injured due to someone’s negligent conduct, contact the Berniard Law Firm today toll-free at 1-866-574-8005.