In a recent and interesting decision, School Board of Miami-Dade County v. Martinez-Oller, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal addressed whether a high school principal was negligent for failing to disclose a student’s poor disciplinary record to one of her teachers who witnessed an attack perpetrated by that student against another. In an unanimous decision, the Third District determined that the principal did not owe a duty of care to disseminate the student’s disciplinary records, and thus the principal and the school could not be deemed negligent.
The altercation at issue in the case occurred on March 22, 2010. The students were in a world history class when one student directed opprobrious language at another. Insulted, the student hurled an eight-pound textbook at the other. The book made contact with the other student and fractured his eye socket. The teacher was only about three feet away from the students when the incident happened, but the teacher didn’t hear the triggering language. A little more than a year later, the injured student, by and through his parents, brought suit against the school district. The plaintiff asserted claims sounding in negligent supervision, arguing that the principal had a duty to report the attacker’s previous disciplinary incidents to teachers. Under federal law, a student’s educational records, including disciplinary records, are entitled to privacy but may be disclosed to teachers if there is a “legitimate educational interest.” Under Florida law, disciplinary records are maintained at the school but are only accessible to the principal and vice principal unless there is a legitimate educational interest determination made authorizing their dissemination. Although no determination had been made, the trial court had directed a verdict with respect to the issue of whether the principal and, by extension, the school district owed a duty to disclose the student’s prior disciplinary issues to her teachers. The jury was instructed on this and further instructed that the only issue remaining for its determination was whether harm to the injured student was “caused” by the school’s failure to disseminate these records.
The Third District concluded that the trial court erred in directing a verdict on the question of duty. Generally, to prove negligent supervision under these circumstances, the plaintiff needed to establish the following: (1) the existence of a teacher-student relationship giving rise to a legal duty to supervise the student; (2) a negligent breach of that duty; (3) a causal link (both direct and proximate) between the student’s injury and the breach of duty; and (4) damages. The question of whether a duty exists is generally a legal one to be determined by a court. McCain v. Florida Power Corp., 593 So. 2d 500, 502 (Fla. 1992). Although there was a student-teacher relationship, the Third District found that the teacher could not be considered negligent because events transpired too quickly for her to act reasonably and prevent the injury. Given the teacher’s lack of knowledge of the student’s alleged aggressive propensities, there would be no reason for her to take preemptive measures that could’ve abated the risk of injury.
On the issue of whether the teacher should’ve been informed of the student’s disciplinary issues, the Court determined that the plaintiff’s theory was flawed insofar as it seemed to suggest that a student’s disciplinary record should always be disseminated to his or her teachers. Indeed, the aggressive student in this case only had two prior disciplinary incidents, neither of which involved the scope of aggressive conduct at issue here. The Third District determined that such mass dissemination was inconsistent with the purpose of the aforementioned educational privacy laws. In the Court’s view, the school’s legal duty only extended to reasonably supervising students, not to providing complete knowledge of every student’s disciplinary history, irrespective of the risk involved.
Proving negligence predicted on one’s failure to prevent a third party from engaging in self-directed violent conduct is always difficult. Despite courts’ aversion to applying liability in circumstances such as these, recovery can occasionally still be possible. Indeed, liability isn’t always limited to the person who inflicts injury, and expanding the scope of possibly liable parties helps assure that one gets complete recovery for the harm he or she has suffered. If you’ve recently been injured, it is wise to get the assistance of knowledgeable counsel who can help you assess all the possibly liable parties. The South Florida child injury attorneys at FK Legal have many years of experience arguing on behalf of injured South Floridians and are ready to help you assess the viability of a possible case. Feel free to contact us if you are interested in a complimentary case consultation.