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Tennessee Court Says School Officials Are Not “Insurers” of Student Safety


In a typical personal injury or premises liability case, a property owner can be held responsible for injuries caused to third parties due to negligence. Unfortunately, Tennessee courts tend to hold public schools to much lower standards. In fact, a school district may be absolved of any liability even when one student sexually assaults another on school grounds, according to a recent Tennessee Court of Appeals decision.

Bathroom Sexual Assault Not “Foreseeable” Event

In this case, a 13-year-old special education student was allegedly “sexually assaulted multiple times during the year” by a classmate. A teacher was informed by a third student that the two boys “were in the bathroom stall together.” The teacher retrieved the boys from the bathroom and took them to the principal’s office. The principal later informed the victim’s parents that he “may have been sexually assaulted.” The victim later confirmed in a written statement that was what had happened.

Three weeks earlier, the victim’s mother sent a letter to the principal, complaining that her son “was being bullied at school.” Although the letter did not name the student accused of sexually assaulting the victim, the mother identified a number of boys who routinely “punched” her son.

After learning of the alleged sexual assault, the parents filed a personal injury lawsuit against the school district. The complaint alleged the school district ad a legal duty to protect the victim from harm. The school district moved for summary judgment, arguing it had no such duty because the alleged sexual assault was “not foreseeable.” The trial judge rejected this argument, holding the mother’s prior letter created a triable issue of fact as to whether the school district was “on notice” about potential harm to the victim.

But the Court of Appeals disagreed with the trial judge and ordered summary judgment for the school district. As the appeals court explained, the issue here was whether the school district “reasonably knew or should have known of the probability of an occurrence such as the one which caused the plaintiff’s injuries.” While school officials have a duty to “exercise ordinary care for the safety of their students,” this does not impose liability for all possible harms that may occur to someone, such as the victim in this case, while on school property. “Society places a significant responsibility on school officials to provide a safe environment for our children,” the Court of Appeals said. “However, such a responsibility does not make school officials insurers of the safety of its students.”

Get Help From a Clinton Personal Injury Attorney

Proving a particular type of harm is “foreseeable” is just one element of establishing a defendant’s liability in a negligence lawsuit. This is a complicated area of law, even when applied to seemingly simple cases. An experienced Knoxville personal injury lawyer can offer invaluable assistance in helping to prove your case. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, today if you need to speak with a lawyer right away.



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