School bullying is a commonly discussed problem in our generation. Parents are often faced with dilemmas on how to protect their children and instruct them in dealing with bullies at school. In earlier eras perhaps this was considered a problem for the individual family to bear alone. In a recent case out of Plain Dealing, Louisiana however, the Louisiana Second Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed that school teachers and the school board can now be held liable for such bullying and its effects.
On December 10, 2012, a fourth-grade boy, J.B., at Carrier Martin Elementary School in Plain Dealing, Louisiana broke his arm during playground recess when three boys knocked him to the ground to keep him from tattling. J.B.’s parents filed a lawsuit on behalf of their son against the Bossier Parish School Board (“Board”), and teacher Tricia Huckaby seeking damages. After a trial before the Judicial District Court for the Parish of Bossier, Louisiana, the jury found in favor of the parents and awarded $125,000 in general damages, $12,674.14 in special damages, and $25,000 to the mother for the loss of consortium for a grand total of $166,784.63 with legal interest. The Board appealed the finding of liability and argued that the award was excessive.
A school board, through its agents and teachers, owes a duty of reasonable supervision over students pursuant to La. C.C. art. 2320. For liability to be imposed on a school board for inadequate supervision of students, there must be (1) proof of negligence and (2) proof of a causal connection between the negligent supervision and the resulting damage to a student. See Creekbaum v. Livingston Parish School Board, 80 So. 3d 771 (La. Ct. App. 2011). The standard of care required by the school supervisors over the students is only what would be expected of a reasonably prudent person in same or similar circumstances. The risk of injury had to be both foreseeable and preventable if a requisite degree of supervision had been exercised. In awarding damages, a jury is empowered with great discretion and the award will only rarely be disturbed on appeal if an abuse of discretion is found.
The Court of Appeal affirmed the District Court jury’s finding that the Board was liable for the damages resulting from J.B.’s injury. The Court of Appeal noted that J.B. had reported to Mrs. Huckaby that the three boys were bothering him during recess. Although school policies existed which required Mrs. Huckaby to further question J.B. about his complaints, Mrs. Huckaby neglected to do so. J.B. essentially warned Mrs. Huckaby of the foreseeable danger he was facing, yet Mrs. Huckaby dismissed his concerns. Based on these facts, the Court of Appeal concluded that the jury was not clearly wrong in finding that the Board and Mrs. Huckaby breached their duty to provide reasonable supervision and that this lack of supervision led to J.B.’s injuries.
The Court of Appeal did not find that the jury award was an abuse of discretion. J.B.’s break was a relatively rare type and a painful injury. J.B.’s doctor concluded that the break could be painful for months, years, and maybe forever. He required pins in his arm to mend the break which limited his activities. J.B.’s mother testified that the incident made J.B. more reticent and greatly added to her caretaking duties. These facts coupled with a jury’s wide berth in awarding damages led the Court of Appeal to conclude that a jury award of $125,000 for general damages and $25,000 for loss of consortium was not an abuse of discretion. The District Court jury award was therefore affirmed.
While bullying may have been a personal problem in the past, this case highlights the role that educators do play in keeping children safe. If Mrs. Huckaby had been exercising reasonable supervision as required by the law, J.B. may have been spared his injuries. If you think you might have a viable claim, it is important to contact a good lawyer who can navigate the complexities of finding liability against school boards.
Additional Berniard Law Firm Articles on Injuries to Minors in Louisiana: Louisiana Appeals Court Finds Tangipahoa Parish School Board Partially Liable for Eye Injury Sustained on School Band Trip