CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WV News) – A 3-2 decision by the West Virginia Supreme Court will allow a Logan County jury to decide whether the school board was negligent in responding to alleged repeated bullying of a student.
The school board had hoped to drop the lawsuit on the front end — before the case was developed through testimony and then brought before a jury. The board pinned its hopes on its increased liability as a political subdivision. It also believed that plaintiffs Dakota Jones and his mother, Matilda Workman, had found no pattern of negligence among school board employees. And even for the sake of arguments, the board’s attorneys contended that the plaintiffs could not show that negligence in alleged prior bullying incidents was the proximate cause of subsequent alleged incidents.
But Justice Beth Walker, who wrote the opinion, along with Chief Justice John Hutchison and Justice William Wooton believe the plaintiffs have sufficient merit for the jury to determine whether the allegations of negligence are well founded.
“We decline Mr. Jones’ apparent invitation to read our past cases as they place an absolute duty on education authorities and their staff to prevent all instances of bullying on school premises,” Walker wrote. “Here we merely conclude that Mr Jones has sufficiently asserted the mandatory element of a negligence claim based on the factual allegations of his complaint.”
Judge Tim Armstead was supported in a dissenting opinion by Judge Haley Bunn. Armstead and Bunn believed plaintiffs failed to breach the state’s immunity shield granting political subdivisions (West Virginia Code § 29-12A-5(a)); and apart from the fact that the allegations made by Jones’ attorneys up to this point were too bare to pass scrutiny.
Jones’ bullying began in 2012 at Logan Middle School when he was a sixth grader, according to the lawsuit filed on his behalf against the school board in 2019 by attorneys Stephen New, Amanda Taylor and Russell Williams of New, Taylor & Associates was in Beckley.
“On December 14, 2012, fellow students wrote on Mr. Jones’ body with permanent markers. The bullying was reported to Mr. Sutherland, the principal of Logan Middle School. Principal Sutherland told Mr. Jones’ mother, Ms. Workman, that he would contact him about the bullying,” Walker wrote.
“Mr. Jones alleges that during his seventh year at Logan Middle School, a student approached him and demanded his place while the school nurse attended to his injury. He claims that in his eighth grade students put pencil leads in his clothes,” Walker wrote.
“Mr. Jones also claims that on September 21, 2015, another Logan Middle School student choked him with a rope, leaving red welts on his neck. Mr Jones claims that a teacher escorted him to Principal Sutherland’s office, where he reported to Headmaster Sutherland that he had been choked. Principal Sutherland has not reported the bullying to Ms Workman,” Walker wrote.
“Mr. Jones claims that two days later, on September 23, a student threw pencils at him. After Mr. Jones told the other student to stop, the other student refused. Mr. Jones claims that, overcome with frustration, he shoved The other student responded by slapping Mr. Jones in the face, knocking him unconscious. Mr. Jones claims the school nurse called Ms. Workman, who then went to Logan Middle School with her niece, Hollie Johnson, and met with Principal Sutherland. When asked what could be done about bullying, Principal Sutherland reportedly replied that “bullying is everywhere” and that “there aren’t really any laws against bullying,” Walker wrote
“Mr. Jones claims that some time later a student stabbed him with a pencil, breaking his skin. The school nurse bandaged the wound. He claims that the school did not inform Ms Workman of the incident. Mr. Jones claims that his schoolmates’ actions caused him to become anxious and anxious. His grades suffered and Ms. Workman was worried he was going to kill himself,” Walker wrote.
Walker and the majority noted that political subdivisions may still be liable under state law for injuries “caused by the negligent performance of acts of their employees in the course of employment” and/or when the employees’ negligence leads to a Violation in or on the premises of a subdivision building.
The majority found that the school board did not assert immunity from the lawsuit before Logan Circuit Judge Joshua Butcher, although Armstead and Bunn disagreed with that finding.
Walker and the majority then determined whether Jones’ negligence claim could survive a school board dismissal motion.
The majority wrote that “Taken together, Mr Jones’ allegations support the conclusion that at least two board employees – Principal Sutherland and the school nurse – knew that the intentional, malicious actions of third parties posed a risk of harm to Mr Jones. That said, these employees knew that students at Logan Middle School had bullied Mr. Jones on at least two occasions and hurt him once.
“Mr. Jones’ allegations also support the conclusion that on September 21, 2015, Principal Sutherland knew or should have known that certain students at Logan Middle School were presenting a high There is a risk that Mr Jones will be harmed because Principal Sutherland then knew that Mr Jones had been choked by another pupil – a far more serious act than the previous alleged cases of bullying,” Walker wrote.
“Mr Jones alleges that Principal Sutherland failed to inform Ms Workman of the choking incident, an allegation which supports the conclusion that Principal Sutherland took no other action in response to Mr Jones’ report. Mr Jones also alleges that Principal Sutherland told Ms Workman he would address the bullying, albeit in 2012. Mr Jones also alleges that the Board has adopted a student code of conduct that addresses bullying and harassment,” Walker wrote.
The majority also noted that the complaint “contains specific allegations leading to the conclusion that the proximate causal element of the [Jones’s] there is a claim for negligence.”
“As previously mentioned, Mr Jones alleges that at least one member of the board, Principal Sutherland, was aware that Mr Jones had been bullied since December 2012. Mr Jones has claimed that another student choked him with a rope on September 21. 2015, and that he did so with enough force to leave red welts on Mr. Jones’ neck,” Walker wrote.
“And he has claimed that even though he reported the attack to Principal Sutherland, Principal Sutherland did not notify Ms. Workman. Days later, a fellow student attacked Mr Jones again. Jones’ favour, the malicious acts of Mr. Jones’ fellow students do not exclude the Board’s liability; “a reasonable juror could conclude that it was reasonably foreseeable for at least one member of the board, Principal Sutherland, that Mr. Jones’ classmates would continue to bully and physically harm Mr. Jones,” Walker wrote.
Armstead acknowledged that the allegations were serious, but added that he believed the district court was correct in finding that the complaint did not allege enough negligence on the part of the school board to override the government’s immunity.
The district court gave Jones and his attorneys an opportunity to amend the record of negligence allegations, but they declined, Armstead wrote.
“Despite the majority’s implication to the contrary, I believe that the enhanced plea process clearly applies in this case and that Mr Jones’ failure to avail himself of the process described in Hutchison and made available to him by the District Court must result in the dismissal of his negligence claim . His superficial allegations simply cannot overcome the defendant’s claim for immunity,” Armstead wrote.
“I do not believe that the allegations made by Mr Jones in his complaint adequately set out the allegations that a member of the Board of Directors acted negligently and I believe the majority’s conclusion in this regard is incorrect for a number of reasons,” wrote Armstead.
“First, Mr. Jones alleges that unnamed students bullied him while he attended Logan Middle School. At no point does Mr. Jones identify the alleged bully or even clarify whether one or more students were involved. In particular, he alleges a case of bullying in 2012 when students wrote on his body in permanent ink,” Armstead wrote.
“Mr. Jones alleges one instance of bullying in 2013, when a fellow student cut his hand, and one instance of bullying in 2014, when unnamed students sprinkled lead in his clothes a few days later by an unnamed student. Also alleged Mr. Jones that he was stabbed with a pencil. While clearly such conduct should not be condoned, I do not believe that these individual incident allegations are sufficient to establish a foreseeable duty on the part of the defendant without additional facts which Mr Jones does not wanted to deliver,” Armstead wrote.
Armstead added, “As the District Court rightly held, Mr. Jones ‘failed to present facts showing the foreseeability of his injuries.’ The Board of Directors will not be liable to Mr. Jones if the unforeseen actions of the bullies caused Mr. Jones’ injuries.”
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