In Georgia, the doctrine of official immunity almost always protects public school teachers, coaches and principals from personal liability for their actions. As a result there are only a very limited set of circumstances where public school employees and administrators can be successfully sued for an injury to a child at school.
Under the doctrine of official immunity teachers, principals and other public employees in our schools cannot be sued for performing “discretionary” acts and duties unless it can be shown that they were acting willfully, wantonly or beyond the scope of their authority. That is a very broad and extensive protection. On the other hand, public employees can be sued if it can be shown that they failed to perform a “ministerial” act.
The important issue in looking at any potential school claim is to see if there are ways to successfully establish that there has been a failure to perform a “ministerial” rather than a “discretionary” act. Unfortunately there are only a very limited set of circumstances where actions have been deemed “ministerial” rather than “discretionary”. There have been two cases involving release of children to the non-custodial parent where our appellate courts have held there were violations of “ministerial” duties. In both cases there were very strict rules and regulations which had been published by the school board establishing fixed policies and procedures to be followed when releasing a child to a non-custodial parent. The written policies did not give any discretion to the employees who might handle such releases. Accordingly when these employee failed to strictly follow the rules which had been published our courts determined those were “ministerial” acts, and permitted the lawsuits precipitated by those failures to proceed. The flip side of that coin, however, is that school districts learned that they could write their way out of potential liability by simply including “discretionary” provisions in their policies for release of children to non-custodial parents.
There have been repeated decisions holding that bus drivers, teachers and principals involved in disciplinary matters are exercising discretion and therefore have immunity in all such circumstances. The same sort of analysis would normally apply to coaches and their normal activities unless there is some written policy or procedure which explicitly removes the action in question from their discretion.
It is always possible that, on careful scrutiny, there may be some areas where teachers and administrators are faced with mandatory rules, policies or procedures which control their conduct. One recent example was a school science experiment that went terribly wrong. In that case there were state and county fire codes in place that were deemed to impose binding “ministerial” duties that had to be followed. The teacher’s failure to comply with the fire code provisions, and the failure of the principal to see that those strict regulations were followed was held to create potential liability which was not precluded by official immunity.
These narrow exceptions to an exceedingly broad general rule illustrate that it is imperative in every potential case to look carefully at all aspects of a situation. If there may be some means to characterize the teacher or administrator’s actions as “ministerial” acts which are not protected under state and sovereign immunity, as opposed to “discretionary” acts that are barred by official immunity, it can mean the difference between recovering, or having your case dismissed.
Our attorneys at James M. Poe, P.C. want all children to remain safe when in someone else’s care at school. If your child or young loved one has experienced an injury while at school, please contact one of our attorneys today to set up a free consultation: 678-501-6860