Thursday, June 12, 2014
A New York trial court held in Elissa v. City of New York, 2014 WL 2216883, that a public school was not liable for a student's suicide (prompted by bullying) because the suicide did not happen at the school, but the student could assert a claim for emotional injuries sustained prior to the suicide that occurred at school. The dismissal for the suicide is not surprising, but permitting the emotional harm claim was somewhat. As posted here before, courts often easily rationalize away school responsibility on theories of "no duty" under both state and federal law, and back it up with precedent. This case is remarkable for the amount of precedent to which it cited in favor of holding the district liable. In pertinent part, the court wrote:
the duty to adequately supervise the students is co-extensive with the school's physical custody and control over them ( See Pratt v. Robinson, 39 N.Y.2d 554, 560 ; see also Maldonado v. Tuckahoe Union Free Sch. Dist., 817 N.Y.S.2d 376 [2d Dept.2006]; Chalen, 814 N.Y.S.2d 254; Morning v. Riverhead Cent. Sch. Dist., 811 N.Y.S.2d 747 [2d Dept.2006]; Tarnaras v. Farmingdale Sch. Dist., 694 N.Y.S.2d 413 [2d Dept.1999] ). . . . However, the plaintiff's claim of emotional injuries was not dismissed, since that harm was inflicted when the student was within the school's physical custody.
With respect to plaintiff's causes of action seeking to recover damages for the emotional injuries sustained by the decedent prior to his death, defendant's have failed to establish their prima facie entitlement to dismissal of such claims.
These emotional injuries were allegedly sustained by the decedent during school hours and on school premises and, as such, plaintiff may seek recovery of these damages based on a theory of negligent supervision. Therefore, plaintiff is not required to plead the existence of a separate and distinct special duty to recover damages for the emotional injuries sustained by decedent prior to his death ( See, e.g., Miccio, supra at 543, 735 N.Y.S.2d 202).
Moreover, a claim that a school failed to adequately address the ongoing harassment of the decedent and that the decedent sustained emotional injuries as a result is a cognizable cause of action ( See Cavello v. Sherburne–Earlville Cent. Sch. Dist., 494 N.Y.S.2d 466 [3d Dept.1985]; see also Barmore v. Aidala, 419 F.Supp.2d 193, 206 [N.D.NY 2005] ).
As such, defendant's claim that a school district's response to harassment and bullying is a discretionary governmental function for which no liability may attach is without merit ( See Barmore, supra, at 206). Indeed, the adequacy of a school's supervision of its students generally presents a question of fact ( See Braunstein v. Half Hollow Hills Cent. Sch. Dist., 962 N.Y.S.2d 340 [2d Dept.2013]; Palmer v. City of New York, 970 N.Y.S.2d 583 [2d Dept.2013]; Oakes v. Massena Cent. Sch. Dist., 797 N.Y.S.2d 640 [3d Dept.2005] ).
Plaintiff's deposition testimony demonstrates that she and the decedent made multiple complaints to multiple school officials regarding the harassment of the decedent, while testimony by the school officials shows that they may not have been aware of the severity of the bullying. In addition, the school addressed harassment by visiting classrooms to educate students regarding the use of the word “gay.” They also hung posters and distributed brochures to educate students on harassment and the steps to report it. However, not all of the students alleged to have harassed decedent were disciplined.
Clearly this demonstrates the existence of triable issues of fact regarding the school's knowledge of the harassment of the decedent and the adequacy of their response thereto ( See Wilson, supra, at 1000–01; Cavello, supra, at 255, 494 N.Y.S.2d 466).