Court finds school district and its employees liable for shooting incident

A lesson for HR leaders when assessing a threat to employees

Court finds school district and its employees liable for shooting incident

In Cleveland v. Taft Union High School District et al., a 16-year-old high school student shot a fellow student in the stomach with a shotgun during their science class.

The shooter was charged with two counts of attempted murder with enhancements, pleaded no contest, and was sentenced to 27 years and four months imprisonment. The injured student filed a personal injury complaint against the school district, the superintendent, the principal and the assistant principal. His claims included general negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

The defendants generally denied the claims and raised several affirmative defenses, including immunity under s. 820.2 and s. 855.6 of the Government Code. They filed a cross-complaint for indemnity and apportionment of fault against the shooter, his mother and his older brother.

The jury found the school district’s employees 54% responsible for the injuries and held the district vicariously liable for about $2 million, which prompted the district to appeal.

Read more: Can a school district and its employees be liable for a student athlete’s injury?

The California Court of Appeal for the Fifth District affirmed the judgment. The campus supervisor’s negligence in dealing with certain information was a cause of the harm to the injured party, the appellate court ruled. The campus supervisor did not report a conversation about employees feeling afraid of the shooter and having escape plans.

The causal chain was identified, the appellate court said. The combined failures of the school district’s employees to handle information with ordinary care led to the assessment team’s failure to sufficiently address the threat that the shooter presented, which in turn caused the injuries.

The appellate court noted that s. 855.6 of the Government Code provided immunity for a “mental examination of any person for the purpose of determining whether such person has a disease or physical or mental condition that would constitute a hazard to the health or safety of himself or others.”

However, the appellate court found that the trial court did not misinterpret s. 855.6 when it decided that the immunity that the section offered did not cover all negligence of the threat assessment team.

According to the appellate court, the acts and omissions of the school district’s employees fell beyond the immunity provided for mental examinations. The threat assessment team:

  • should have included the school resource officer as a core member;
  • failed to collectively carry out the threat assessment;
  • failed to collectively monitor the shooter and reassess the safety plan;
  • did not communicate amongst themselves about the shooter;
  • did not adequately reach out to the shooter’s parent;
  • did not recommend counseling as an intervention technique.

A jury was entitled to find that a campus supervisor’s negligent failure to report information, alongside the threat assessment team’s communication shortcomings, was a substantial factor in failing to prevent a shooting, the California court concluded.

Learn more about laws impacting the workplace during Employment Law Masterclass California on June 14.

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