Absence of “Special Duty” Results in Dismissal of Injured Teacher’s Lawsuit

Teaching is hard work. In addition to the typical stresses of any job – rude co-workers, overbearing bosses, long hours – teachers are forced to deal with unique challenges, such as physical violence in the classroom. This has been in the news lately; the search results from a Google query for “student attack teacher” are disheartening, to say the least.

Consider the recent case of Brumer v. City of New York, 2015 NY Slip Op 07611, decided by the Appellate Division, Second Department on October 21, 2015.

The facts, according to the court:

The plaintiff, a fourth grade teacher at a public school in Brooklyn, alleges that she was injured when she was assaulted by one of her students. According to the plaintiff, the student had been restrained by a school security guard after engaging in a fight with another boy during a fire drill. Although the security guard escorted the student away from the rest of the class, the student subsequently returned to the scene and began fighting again. The plaintiff alleges that during this second episode, the student hit her, causing her to fall to the ground and sustain injuries.

Defendants (the City of NY, the Dept. of Education, a principal, and an assistant principal) moved for summary judgment, arguing “that there was no special relationship between them and the plaintiff, and, as such, that they did not owe her a duty of care.” The Supreme Court granted that branch of defendants’ motion.

Here is the law, as summarized by the court:

A school district may not be held liable for the negligent performance of its governmental function of supervising children in its charge, at least in the absence of a special duty to the person injured. Although a school district owes a special duty to its minor students, that duty does not extend to teachers, administrators, or other adults on or off school premises. With regard to teachers, administrators, or other adults on or off school premises, a special relationship with a municipal defendant can be formed in three ways: (1) when the municipality violates a statutory duty enacted for the benefit of a particular class of persons; (2) when it voluntarily assumes a duty that generates justifiable reliance by the person who benefits from the duty; or (3) when the municipality assumes positive direction and control in the face of a known, blatant and dangerous safety violation. (Emphasis added; citations/quotation marks omitted; paragraphing modified)

The appellate court held that the motion court “correctly concluded [that] the school defendants established, prima facie, that they did not owe the plaintiff a special duty” and that plaintiff failed to raise a triable issue of fact. In the absence of a special duty, the court did not “consider whether, in supervising the students, the school defendants were performing a discretionary function which would avail them of the governmental immunity defense.”

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