Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Indiana School District Not Entitled to Summary Judgment on Discretionary Immunity Claim In School Shooting Case
The Indiana Court of Appeals recently ruled that a negligence claim could go forward against a school district for failing to protect two victims of a school shooting. The case arises from a shooting in Martinsville West Middle School, Indiana, after a student, Phelps, shot two students, C.J. and B.K. The two injured students, through their parents, sued the Martinsville Metropolitan School District claiming that the district failed to protect the students from Phelps by negligently leaving a school door unlocked that allowed Phelps to enter with a gun. The students alleged that the district failed in its duty of care by failing to warn staff that Phelps posed a threat and failed to tell staff to look for Phelps on school grounds after he was suspended and to call 911 if Phelps was spotted on school property after he had been banned from school grounds. The school district lost its motion for summary judgment before an Indiana state court and appealed. The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s denial of summary judgment, finding enough evidence to show that the district was not immune from liability under the Indiana Tort Claims Act and that the School District did not breach its duty to C.J. and B.K. The Court of Appeals also rejected the district’s argument that C.J. was contributorily negligent for failing to alert school authorities that Phelps had made a threat against him. The Court of Appeals concluded that the school principal’s safety plan did not entitle the district to discretionary function immunity under the Indiana Tort Claims Act because the school district was the ultimate policy-making body. While the school principal had authority over the operation of the school, the principal had no policy-making authority. The appellate court further determined that the case had genuine issues of material fact on the negligence claims because the district did not prove as a matter of law that the shooting was unforeseeable. The court noted that “Phelps had a lengthy history of serious misbehavior in school; threatened to blow up the school; and was on school grounds, presumably in close proximity to the personnel monitors, for thirty minutes prior to the shooting, ... and had made threats against C.J., of which at least one  teacher was aware.” Given these facts and the court’s stated reluctance to find summary judgment in fact-intensive negligence claims, the Court of Appeals held that that the question of breach of duty was best left to a jury. Read Metropolitan Sch. Dist. of Martinsville v. Jackson, No. 55A01-1304-CT-182 (Ind. App. Ct. May 19, 2014) here.