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Massachusetts Tort Claims Act Protects Schools from Liability for Failing to Protect Harm Caused by Bullying

Bullying is a persistent and ever growing problem throughout the schools in our nation, including schools in Massachusetts. While generally bullying is thought of as causing emotional harm, it often results in physical harm as well. Parents may be unsure who should be held accountable when their child suffers a personal injury due to bullying. Recently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that public defendants in Massachusetts personal injury cases are protected from liability for negligently failing to prevent the bullying and physical assault of a child.

In Cormier v. City of Lynn, a classmate pushed the child victim down a flight of stairs. The fall caused a spinal injury that ultimately resulted in the victim’s permanent paralysis. The victim’s parents brought a lawsuit against several defendants, including the City of Lynn, the school district and their public employees. The victim’s parents alleged that the victim had been subjected to constant bullying over the school year, and that his mother had reported harassing acts to the school officials on several occasions. The victim had reported acts of bullying and harassment to his teachers and school administrators as well. The victim’s parents alleged the school negligently failed to enforce its own anti-bullying policies and procedures.

The City of Lynn, school district and public employees filed a motion to dismiss arguing the claims against them were barred by the Massachusetts Torts Claim Act. The motion to dismiss was granted and affirmed on appeal. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court granted the victim’s parents’ motion for further review on whether the Massachusetts Torts Claims Act barred them from bringing claims against the public defendants for negligently failing to prevent the victim from being bullied.

On appeal, the court noted that for over a century, sovereign immunity largely protected the commonwealth municipalities from liability. The Massachusetts courts eventually determined the reasoning in support of the doctrine of sovereign immunity was logically unsound, and sought to abrogate the doctrine. Shortly thereafter, the Massachusetts Torts Claim Act was passed, allowing for the imposition of limited tort liability on the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions.  The second section of the Act provides that public employees can be held liable for wrongful or negligent acts committed within the scope of their employment.

There are several exceptions to the general waiver of immunity, which reinstate protection from liability for public employees. One exception bars a public employee from any liability for the failure to prevent or diminish harmful situations, including violent or tortuous conduct of an outside individual. The court interpreted this exception as providing protection from liability to a public employer for failure to prevent harm caused by the tortious conduct of another person unless the public employer took some affirmative action to cause the harmful condition or situation. The court further elaborated that a public employer would have to materially contribute to the harmful situation or condition to be considered a cause of the harm.

In applying the Massachusetts Torts Claim Act and its exceptions to the victim’s case, the court stated that while the public defendants indirectly contributed to the victim’s injuries, their actions did not materially contribute to the harm that caused the victim’s injuries. As such, the court found that while the school and its employees failed to prevent the victim’s harm, the Act did not allow for the imposition of liability for failure to act.

Filing suit against a public entity may seem like a fruitless venture, but there are several exceptions to sovereign immunity. Experienced personal injury counsel has the knowledge to anticipate any potential exemptions from liability and navigate the best plan to pursue your claims. The attorneys at Karsner & Meehan understand that personal injury cases are emotionally charged, since monetary damages can never restore an injured party to their pre-injury state. Our attorneys will aggressively litigate your claims to hold the party responsible for your injuries accountable. For a free, confidential consultation, contact our office at 508-822-6600.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Supreme Court Reviews Extent of Tort Claims Act in Serious Injury Slip and Fall Suit June 12, 2018, Massachusetts Injury Lawyers Blog

Dismissal of School Negligence Case Affirmed by Massachusetts Appellate Court May 28, 2018, Massachusetts Injury Lawyers Blog

Who is Responsible if an Injury Occurs at a Public Space in Massachusetts? September 4, 2014, Massachusetts Injury Lawyers Blog