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School boards may be liable for negligent discipline, Md. high court says

“We have not applied the educational malpractice doctrine to claims that were not based upon educational placement or pedagogical decisions and decline to expand the doctrine to cover the negligence claims asserted by the Gambrills in this case,” wrote Judge Brynja M. Booth for the Court of Appeals.

School boards can be sued based on allegations that their teachers’ negligent handling of student misbehavior caused another pupil’s injuries, Maryland’s top court unanimously ruled last week.

In its 7-0 decision, the Court of Appeals said a 2001 federal statute designed to protect teachers from liability for their disciplinary decisions does not preempt a Maryland law requiring school boards to indemnify teachers for their negligence.

The high court added that the “educational malpractice doctrine” preventing school boards from being sued for the quality of the education they provide does not apply to claims of negligent supervision of students.

The court rendered its decision in reviving Brandon and Robin Gambrill’s claim that teachers at a Cambridge middle school and the Dorchester County School Board negligently failed to discipline unruly students adequately, resulting in their daughter – identified in court papers as “S.” — suffering multiple concussions.

A Dorchester County Circuit Court judge had granted summary judgment to Mace’s Lane Middle School teachers and the board, saying they were protected by the federal Paul D. Coverdell Teacher Protection Act and the educational malpractice doctrine. The intermediate Court of Special Appeals agreed.

Reversing those decisions, the Court of Appeals said the Coverdell Act prevents teachers from being held financially liable for their actions but does not protect them against being sued and found negligent. Thus the federal statute does not supersede Maryland’s Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article, or CJ, which requires school boards to pay the money judgments against teachers found to have been negligent, the high court said.

“The Coverdell Act does not prohibit a teacher from having a seat at the defense table – it simply precludes a teacher from being personally liable for harm caused by the teacher’s negligent acts or omissions under certain circumstances as outlined in the act,” Judge Brynja M. Booth wrote for the court.

“In this sense the act is no different than CJ § 5-518,” Booth added. “Both statutes insulate the teacher from personal liability for money damages arising from negligent conduct undertaken in the scope of employment.”

The Court of Appeals added that school boards cannot use the educational malpractice doctrine to defend themselves against negligent supervision claims. The doctrinal defense prevents only legal challenges to the soundness of the school’s educational program, the court said, citing its 1982 Hunter v. Board of Education of Montgomery County decision that created the doctrine.

The lower courts had erroneously held the doctrine’s immunity from suit also covers the negligent meting out of discipline because punishing unruly behavior at school is part of the educational process, the Court of Appeals added.

“The Gambrills are not alleging claims based upon educational placement or academic decisions that were made concerning S.’s educational needs,” Booth wrote in sending the family’s lawsuit back to circuit court.

“Instead, they allege that the school employees and their employer had a duty to use reasonable measures to protect S. while on school grounds, including supervising students and taking precautions to protect S.’s physical safety,” Booth added. “We have not applied the educational malpractice doctrine to claims that were not based upon educational placement or pedagogical decisions and decline to expand the doctrine to cover the negligence claims asserted by the Gambrills in this case.”

The Gambrills’ attorney, Cary J. Hansel III,  hailed the high court’s ruling as “a big win for keeping kids safe” because it provides victims of negligent classroom supervision an opportunity for financial compensation that would have been denied them under the Court of Special Appeals’ reported decision.

In addition, the high court properly limited the scope of the educational malpractice doctrine to curriculum and related matters, said Hansel, of Hansel Law PC in Baltimore.

“Judges ought not serve as boards of education,” Hansel added. “Judges and courts deal with negligence and other tort liability.”

The Dorchester Board of Education’s attorneys, Adam E. Konstas and Andrew G. Scott, did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the court’s decision. Konstas and Scott are with Pessin Katz Law PA in Towson.

The Gambrills sued the teachers and school board in May 2018 after their sixth-grade daughter had been physically and verbally assaulted by at least six students resulting in two concussions.

The altercations had persisted despite efforts by teachers and administrators to separate the girl from her aggressors by changing their class schedules and locker locations, issuing in-school suspensions and pursuing external mediation – measures the Gambrills claim were negligently insufficient.

The teachers, administrators and school board have denied the allegations of negligence.   The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Brandon Gambrill et al. v. Board of Education of Dorchester County et al., No. 34, September Term 2021.