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School district not immune from liability in shooting incident

May 19, 2014

Although a principal was responsible for formulating and implementing a security plan for her school, the level of discretion the principal had was not enough to give the school district immunity from liability following an in-school shooting.

Martinsville West Middle School students C.J. and B.K. filed lawsuits against the Metropolitan School District of Martinsville after they were injured during a school shooting by a former student, Michael Phelps. Even though he was prohibited from being on school property, Phelps was able to enter the building undetected by the teachers and shoot C.J. twice in the stomach. B.K. was hurt when shell casing hit his hand.

Both students and their mothers claimed the school failed to provide protection and sued the school district.

The school district filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing, in part, it was immune from liability under the Indiana Tort Claims Act. Specifically, the principal was a public employee acting in a discretionary manner which is protected under Indiana statute from liability claims.

 The Indiana Court of Appeals noted in Peavler v. Board of Commissioners of Monroe County, 528, N.E. 2d 40, 46 (Ind. 1988), the Indiana Supreme Court revisited the discretionary function exception but “was unambiguous” that it did not intend to give immunity to all decisions that involve judgment or discernment.

Subsequently, the Court of Appeals concluded that Peavler limits the immunity granted to the discretionary function to only those decisions which exercise political power and is held accountable only to the Constitution or the political process. Therefore, the school district was not immune because the principal’s development of a safety plan was not an exercise of political power.   

The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of summary judgment in M.S.D. of Martinsville v. Rebecca Jackson, individually and as a parent and legal guardian of C.J., a Minor, and Kelli Dearth, individually and as a parent and legal guardian of B.K., a Minor, 55A01-1304-CT-182.

“As with most discretionary decisions, Principal (Suzie) Lipps may well have balanced factors and resource considerations in developing her plan, but that does not mean that this activity rises to the level of protected policy-making by the school board,” Judge Paul Mathias wrote for the court. “Under these facts and circumstances, the School District is not entitled to immunity under the discretionary function exception of the ITCA.”









 

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