The Indiana Court of Appeals recently revived a parents’ case filed against a public school for mental anguish their seven-year-old son experienced when he was incorrectly directed to walk home from school instead of riding the school bus home. In Hopkins v. Indianapolis Pub. Sch., Casey Hopkins and Terry Yarbrough (the Parents), filed a lawsuit on behalf of their son, DeShawn Yarbrough (DeShawn), against Indianapolis Public Schools d/b/a Ralph Waldo Emerson School 58 (the School). On DeShawn’s second day of first grade at the School, DeShawn, who had a blue tag attached to his school bag indicating he was a bus rider, got in line to go home on the school bus, as he had done the previous day. However, he was directed by a teacher to leave the line and wait with other children who would be walking home. DeShawn had never walked to or from the school and his house was around 1.2 miles from the school. He did not know how to get home and ended up walking over a mile in the wrong direction during which time he was approached by a homeless man in an alley, he was chased by dogs, and he had to cross a busy road at rush hour. Ultimately, a stranger helped DeShawn and contacted the school, the police, and his mom.
The Parents sued the school claiming the School failed to exercise reasonable care and supervision for DeShawn’s safety. The School filed a motion for summary judgment in court arguing it was entitled to immunity as a governmental entity under the Indiana Tort Claims Act (ITCA), which provides “[a] governmental entity… is not liable if a loss results from… [t]he adoption and enforcement of or a failure to adopt or enforce… in the case of a public school… a policy.” Ind. Code § 34-13-3-3(a)(8)(B). After a hearing, the trial court granted the School’s motion for summary judgment finding the School was immune from liability under the ITCA.
The Parents appealed and on appeal argued the School was not entitled to immunity under Indiana Code § 34-13-3-3(a)(8)(B) because what happened to their son did not result from the School’s failure to properly enforce a school policy. While the Court of Appeals noted some question as to the meaning of “policy” under the ITCA, the Court ultimately concluded the Parents’ claim did not arise from the School’s failure to “enforce” its dismissal procedures, and therefore the School was not entitled to the “enforcement” immunity under the ITCA. The Court reviewed prior precedent defining enforcement under the ITCA as “compelling or attempting to compel the obedience of another to laws, rules or regulations, and the sanctioning or attempt to sanction a violation thereof,” such as a school deciding to suspend, expel, or impose discipline on students. Here, the Court ruled public schools are not entitled to immunity when they are sued concerning their own compliance, or failure to comply, with laws, regulations, or their own policies, and since the Parents were alleging the School itself failed to comply with its own dismissal procedures, as opposed to the School failing to compel DeShawn’s obedience to its dismissal procedures, the trial court erred in granting summary judgment under Indiana Code § 34-13-3-3(a)(8)(B) of the ITCA.
The School also argued in the alternative that it was entitled to immunity under Indiana Code § 34-13-3-3(a)(10) of the ITCA, which provides “[a] governmental entity… is not liable if a loss results from… [t]he act or omission of anyone other than the governmental entity or the governmental entity’s employee.” The School claimed the teacher who removed DeShawn from the bus line and directed him to walk home was a substitute teacher and independent contractor, not a school employee. However, the Court found conflicting evidence as to who exactly was ultimately responsible for the mishap, and because the facts were in dispute, the Court found the School was also not entitled to immunity under Indiana Code § 34-13-3-3(a)(10) of the ITCA.
The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the School and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings.
You can read the full opinion here.