Washington State Supreme Court Case Re: School Negligence

The Washington State Supreme Court just issued a decision regarding school liability in a case where a 14 year female junior high student was raped by an 18 year male high school student who was also a registered sex offender. Approximately two years before, the male student, in the same school district, sexually assaulted a different junior high student. He was charged with indecent liberties and suspended for the rest of the school year. He was required to register as a level one sex offender and was not allowed contact with people two or more years younger than himself.

It is unclear to me whether the same principal was at the school when the original incident happened, but the principal at the time of second incident was notified by the Pierce County sheriff that the male student was registered sex offender. The record indicates that the principal did not inform the male student’s teachers, coaches, or relevant staff of the male student’s sex offender status. The evidence suggested that the principal did nothing to establish a safety plan and to help the male student avoid students two or more years younger than him.

The male student was allowed to participate in track and ran varsity for the Bethel High School varsity team. The high school and the junior high shared the track field. The male student was described as acting like a coach and mentor to the younger students on both schools’ teams. During practice a mutual friend introduced the targeted student and the aggressor. The very next day he invited her to lunch after school and she skipped track practice with the intention of going to Burger King for lunch, instead the male student took her to his home, under the pretense he had forgotten something, and then he raped the female student.

The female student told a friend and the friend told the school and the girl’s parent. The police were called and the male student was charged with third degree rape and plead guilty to second degree assault.

The trial court dismissed the case on summary judgment and the Supreme Court was addressing the questions: (1) Whether the school district’s responsibility to protect the student ended, and therefore its liability ended, when she left campus? And (2) Whether the alleged negligence, as a matter of law, could be the proximate cause of her injury?

A side note about proximate cause

Since the concept of “proximate cause” is central to the court’s analysis I want to elaborate on the issue for clarity for nonlawyers (the majority also did provided a quality description). This is a legal concept that involves two concepts – cause in fact, and legal cause. Cause in fact means that “but for” the A, B would not have happened. Legal cause is a policy determination about how far the consequences of a defendant’s acts should extend. There can be more than one proximate cause of an injury, and something else by a third party does not necessarily break the causal chain from the original negligence to final injury.

A couple of overly simplistic examples:

Proximate cause does not exist: D is texting and inadvertently lets her foot of the gas and rear ends E at a stop sign. D has a hummer and E has smart car, so there’s some damage, but everyone seems fine. A couple days later, E decides to go to E’s doctor because E has a sore neck that doesn’t seem to be going away. While coming back from the doctor, E is robbed. There is no proximate cause for D for the loss of money E sustained in the robbery because it is not a foreseeable consequence that someone could get robbed on the way back from a medical appointment.

Proximate cause exists: A shoots B and B gets in a car and drive to the hospital, and en route to the hospital gets hit by C and is B delayed in getting to the hospital by 25 minutes. A is still responsible for any injuries related to the gunshot, even if the delay possibly exacerbated the injury, because it is reasonably foreseeable that if you shoot someone, they may have a hard time getting to help. Proximate Cause Stops Existing: B gets fixed at the hospital and two weeks later is at a routine follow-up appointment and slips and falls at the doctor’s office. B breaks their arm in the fall. While on some level it is foreseeable that B would have follow-up care and that some people have accidents, as a policy the slip and fall is disconnected enough from the initial gun shot that as a legal matter we are likely to say that the A is not liable for injury related to slip and fall, even though, but for the initial gun shot, B would likely not have been at the doctor’s office.

Back to the School Discrimination Case

The issues in the school negligence case before the Washington State Supreme Court was about whether or not the fact that the incident occurred in the male students home was enough of another factor as to interrupt the school’s potential liability. In the dissent’s view, the school’s responsibility ended because a school cannot control the behavior of students in their homes. Fortunately that was the dissent and their view, that as a matter of law the school cannot be liable for its negligent acts if the injury occurs of school grounds or not at school activities. Instead the majority held that it was reasonably foreseeable and the school district may be liable for a foreseeable injury that is likely a proximate cause for the injury.

This decision doesn’t mean that a jury will find the school district was negligent. The school district will still have an opportunity to try to demonstrate that it was not essentially their fault that the 14 year old student was raped by an 18 year old student. Although, given that the then Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) said that “the haphazard nature of Bethel’s approach to keeping its students safe from registered sex predators frankly boggles the imagination” and that the district “fell unconscionably below the accepted standard of care ‘to protect students from dangers that are known or should have been known,'” I don’t think the school district’s chance of success is very high.

This decision does say that a school district’s liability does not end at the schoolhouse doors (to adopt an expression about student rights). I expect that it will be a high threshold for school district liability, but a situation like this, where a school district has two types of knowledge, their own disciplinary history of the aggressor student and the report by the Sheriff’s office of the aggressor student’s sex offender registry status and the requirement not to be around students who were two years younger and that the day after he met this student at track practice he raped her make this a particularly compelling case. Even with the compelling facts, it was a narrow (5:4) decision.

Additional Case Details: 

N.L. v. Bethel Sch. Dist., Docket No. 91775-2, Counsel for Petitioner: Francis Stanley Floyd and John Armen Safarli at Floyd Pflueger & Ringer PS; Counsel for Respondent: Julie Anne Kays and Robert Connelly Jr at Connelly Law Offices.

Amicus briefs were filed by Gerald Moberg for Jerry Morberg & Associates on behalf of the Washington State School Directors Association, Association of Washington School Principals, and Washington Association of School Administrators. 

Amicus brief on Behalf of the Washington State Association for Justice Foundation was filed by Bryan Harnetiaux, Valerie Davis Mcomie, and Daniel Edward Huntingon (the court Supreme Court Information Sheet references a brief, but the brief was not found on Court website with the links to the briefs in the case).

Briefs in the case can be found on the Washington State Courts website under Supreme Court Petitions for Review