Thursday, September 5, 2013
District Court Allows Unique Special Education and Negligence Claims to Proceed in Student Suicide Case
Like so many cases I have posted on recently, Moore v. Hamilton Southeastern Sch. Dist., 2013 WL 4607228 (S.D. Ind. 2013), involves an incredibly tragic set of facts. During his sixth grade year, the plaintiff, Jamarcus Bell, began experiencing disciplinary problems at school, which continued for the next two years. “[H]e was cited for 36 separate disciplinary infractions in less than two years. His misbehavior usually consisted of inappropriate physical contact with other students, such as slapping, spitting, punching, kicking, or placing gum in another student's hair.” On several occasions, however, it appears “Jamarcus was punished for acts of retaliation he perpetrated against other students who had provoked him,” although the school gave his parents the impression that he was the instigator.
In his seventh grade year, Jamarcus wrote in an essay “that he had ‘cut himself,’ run away from home, and attempted to overdose on pills.” That same year, he made an apparent suicide attempt in a closet at school. After the suicide attempt, Jamarcus was treated at a hospital and by a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), major depressive disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder. The school subsequently evaluated him for special education but determined he was not eligible for services, largely due to the fact that his C grades showed he could be “’successful’ in the normal environment and was not suffering an adverse educational impact from his behavioral problems.” Jamarcus’s disciplinary problems, however, continued, as did harassment of him, including harassing racial and sexual orientation comments, theft and physical violence. He ultimately committed suicide at his parents' home on October 20, 2010, during the school's fall break.
The legal claims against the school in regard to negligence and the IDEA, however, are of particular interest for their novelty (at least to me).Jamarcus's parents made numerous legal theories, several of which were rejected by the court, but the court rejected the district's motion to dismiss the negligence claims. The negligence claims are primarily premised on the Indiana Child Wrongful Death Act, which allows a surviving parent to recover damages from “the person whose wrongful act or omission caused the injury or death of a child.” Ind.Code § 34–23–2–1(c). Courts in most states typical reject claims against schools arising out of injuries or death that a child sustained, reasoning that the schools have lack a duty to protect the child from harm under both state tort law and the federal constitution. This Indiana statute, enacted in 2007, indicates an intent on the part of the Indiana legislature to reverse those common law and constitutional holdings in the state.
Of course, establishing a tort duty is only half the battle. One must also establish the specifics of that duty and the breach of that duty. On those scores, the plaintiffs argued that violation of the IDEA amounts to negligence per se. The court applied the standard negligence per se analysis to the statute and agreed that plaintiffs could proceed. As a tort claim, however, the jury will be the ultimate decisionmaker, unless the parties reach a settlement.
I will have to admit that when I began reading the opinion, I expected the court to dismiss plaintiffs claims, but creative lawyering and a new state statute produced a different result.