Imagine being a parent and finding out that your child was sexually molested at school. How would you feel if a lawyer told you there was no way to hold the school responsible for the criminal acts of its teacher? Unfortunately, that is the way the law works in Michigan.
Last month, two students of the Los Angeles Unified School District received $3 million each in damages from the school district. The large awards compensated them for sexual abuse suffered at the hands of a third-grade special education teacher.
In 2014, the school district settled with 70 families for failing to protect their children from the teacher’s behavior. But it refused to settle with these two families, claiming that the emotional trauma the children suffered was because of their learning disabilities and the deaths of the boys fathers. The students’ attorneys told the New York Times:
“They had a plan to take the very thing that allowed Mr. Chapel to access them and use it as a sword to try to deny them justice. . . . A jury saw that for what it was, and this is a huge black eye for them. It is shameful.”
The awards compensate the families for the ongoing emotional harm caused by the teacher’s behavior and allow them to receive necessary treatment.
Sadly, the boys’ case could never reach such a happy ending in Michigan. In 2011, the Michigan Supreme Court shut down claims against employers, including schools districts, for the criminal behavior of their employees. In Hamed v Wayne County, then-Justice Mary Beth Kelley wrote on behalf of the court:
“[A]n employer’s liability for the criminal acts of its employees is limited to those acts it can reasonably foresee or reasonably should have foreseen.”
She then ruled that criminal behavior is never reasonably foreseeable. The court overruled Champion v Nationwide Security, and determined that even when a worker’s previous conduct had raised warnings of that person’s dangerous and violent behavior, the court determined that Wayne County could not have foreseen that the person would commit further criminal sexual behavior.
The decision cuts off any chance for students sexually assaulted in Michigan to hold their school districts accountable. Hamed erects a wall between injured students and their school administrators, giving the schools a shield against valid claims based on real injuries.
Despite the school’s custodial relationship with its students, and its responsibility to protect the children in its care, Michigan parents don’t have the assurance that their school district is responsible for the acts of its teachers. Unlike the Los Angeles Unified School District, Michigan schools can hide behind the Hamed decision. The ruling allows school districts to dodge claims designed to compensate students hurt by the criminal acts of their students.
David Christensen is an attorney at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He represents students in personal injury claims against school districts. If you know a child who has been seriously hurt at school, contact Christensen Law today for a free consultation.