Massachusetts’ Highest Court Sides with School Officials in Negligence Case Brought by Parents of Student Rendered Quadriplegic by Bullying

Bullying is a terrible problem in schools these days. Sometimes, a Massachusetts personal injury or wrongful death claim can arise from injuries caused by bullies. While each case stands on its own facts, a common issue in such cases is, “is the school liable?” In a case that made its way all the way to the state’s highest court, it was held that neither the school district nor teachers to whom reports of bullying had previously been made were liable for an incident that put a young student in a wheelchair for life.

Facts of the Case

In a recent case, the plaintiffs were the parents of a fourth grader who was pushed down the stairs by a classmate at his public elementary school in 2008. Although the extent of the boy’s injuries was not immediately apparent, he complained of tingling and numbness in his extremities a few hours after the fall; by the end of the school day, he reported that his legs were like “dead weight” and required assistance to walk out of the school. Two days later, the student was diagnosed with an injury to his spinal column and spinal cord, which resulted in permanent quadriplegia.

The parents filed suit against several defendants, including the school district, the city that owned the school where the incident happened, and several public employees, seeking compensation for the student’s injuries. The trial court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims against the defendants, and the appeals court affirmed.

Decision of the Court

On further review by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, the court affirmed the lower courts’ rulings in favor of the defendants, framing the issue as whether the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act
found at Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 258, § 10 (j) barred the plaintiffs from bringing claims against the defendants. Assuming for the sake of argument that the defendants were negligent in failing to act reasonably to prevent the bullying that led to the student’s injuries, the court held that the Act protected the defendants from liability.

The court first noted that, traditionally, neither public entities nor their employees were liable in tort for acts of negligence or nonfeasance. Only since the passage of the Act has there been any waiver of the immunity otherwise enjoyed by the government and its workers. Because of the potentially catastrophic financial burden to taxpayers had there been a total waiver of immunity, the Act contains several significant limitations and exceptions. Important among these exceptions is immunity for harm caused by a third party, unless the condition that gave rise to the plaintiff’s injury was originally caused by the public entity or its employee.

In the case at bar, the court acknowledged that, while the defendants “could have and should have” done more to protect the plaintiffs’ son from the bullying that led to his catastrophic injuries, it was a third party (a fellow student) who directly harmed him. Thus, the defendants were entitled to immunity under the Act.

Speak to an Experienced Attorney About Your Case

As this case illustrates, a person’s life can change drastically in just a short time, especially when others are negligent or reckless, or engage in intentional wrongdoing. If you or a family member has suffered a serious or catastrophic injury because of another party’s wrongful conduct, the Law Offices of John C. Manoog, III, can help you explore your legal options and pursue compensation for your pain and suffering, medical expenses, lost wages, or other damages. Call us at 888-262-6664; we have offices in both Plymouth and Hyannis, and nos falamos Portugues!

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