Calif. SC says school districts can be found vicariously liable

Jessica M. Karmasek Mar. 15, 2012, 11:30am


SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline) - The California Supreme Court ruled last week that a school district may be found vicariously liable for the negligent hiring, retention and supervision of its employees.

In this case, the William S. Hart Union High School District may be found vicariously liable for the hiring, retention and supervision of a guidance counselor accused of sexually harassing and abusing a student, the Court said.

The plaintiff, a young male, about 14 or 15 years old at the time of the alleged harassment and abuse, sued Roselyn Hubbell, the head guidance counselor at Golden Valley High School, and the school district for damages.

The boy had been assigned to Hubbell for school counseling.

According to court documents, she began to spend many hours with him, both on and off the high school premises. She even drove him home from school each day.

She also allegedly engaged in sexual activities with the boy and required he did the same, including "sensual embraces and massages," masturbation, oral sex and intercourse.

As a result, the boy claimed to suffer emotional distress, anxiety, nervousness and fear.

The school district demurred to the complaint, arguing the negligent supervision and negligent hiring and retention causes of action failed to state a claim because of the lack of statutory authority for holding a public entity liable for negligent supervision, hiring or retention of its employees.

The Los Angeles County Superior Court sustained the district's demurrer to the entire complaint without leave to amend and dismissed the action as to the district.

Hubbell did not join in the district's demurrer and is not a party to the present appeal.

The state Court of Appeal affirmed in a divided opinion. The plaintiff appealed.

The state's high court, in its March 8 ruling, explained that the question is whether the school district may be found vicariously liable for the acts of its employees -- not for the acts of the counselor, which were outside the scope of her employment, but for the negligence of supervisory or administrative personnel who allegedly knew, or should have known, of the counselor's "propensities" and still hired, retained and "inadequately" supervised her.

Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, who authored the Court's 22-page opinion, called the plaintiff's theory of vicarious liability a "legally viable one."

"Ample case authority establishes that school personnel owe students under their supervision a protective duty of ordinary care, for breach of which the school district may be held vicariously liable," she wrote.

"If a supervisory or administrative employee of the school district is proven to have breached that duty by negligently exposing plaintiff to a foreseeable danger of molestation by his guidance counselor, resulting in his injuries, and assuming no immunity provision applies, liability falls on the school district under (Government Code) Section 815.2."

Simply put, school administrators have a duty of reasonable care to protect a student from foreseeable dangers, even if that includes other school employees, the Court said.

"While school districts and their employees have never been considered insurers of the physical safety of students, California law has long imposed on school authorities a duty to 'supervise at all times the conduct of the children on the school grounds and to enforce those rules and regulations necessary to their protection.' The standard of care imposed upon school personnel in carrying out this duty to supervise is identical to that required in the performance of their other duties," Werdegar wrote.

"This uniform standard to which they are held is that degree of care 'which a person of ordinary prudence, charged with (comparable) duties, would exercise under the same circumstances.' Either a total lack of supervision or ineffective supervision may constitute a lack of ordinary care on the part of those responsible for student supervision."

Therefore, the Court said, a "school district is vicariously liable for injuries proximately caused by such negligence."

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