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School Not Responsible for Student’s Suicide

Court ruled that a parochial school was not responsible for the suicide of a freshman student who was a victim of relentless bullying.

Last Reviewed: March 15, 2021
Key point 10-11. A church may be legally responsible on the basis of negligent supervision for injuries resulting from a failure to exercise adequate supervision of its programs and activities.
Key point 10-17.1. Punitive damages are monetary damages awarded by a jury "in addition to compensation for a loss sustained, in order to punish, and make an example of, the wrongdoer." They are awarded when a person's conduct is reprehensible and outrageous. Most church insurance policies exclude punitive damages. This means that a jury award of punitive damages represents an uninsured risk.

Editor's note: The following Recent Development contains offensive slurs regarding sexual orientation. These details are facts from the case and are included here to help church leaders understand both the nature and severity of the situation, and the types of factors that can contribute to potential litigation.

The federal Court of Claims ruled that a parochial school was not responsible for the suicide of a freshman student who was a victim of relentless bullying.

In his freshman year as a student at a Catholic high school, a freshman student (the "victim") was allegedly abused and harassed while on campus. He was called "faggot," "fag," "gay," and suffered other sexually oriented and derogatory verbal abuse. The victim's mother identified three male students as primarily responsible for the abusive behavior, which included advice for the victim to "go home and kill himself." Students also hit the victim with belts. Tragically, the victim later committed suicide.

The victim's mother (the "plaintiff") sued the school, claiming that it was responsible for her son's death because of its failure to enforce its own anti-bullying policy. The trial court granted the school's motion to dismiss all claims, concluding that the plaintiff had failed to demonstrate that the school was negligent, and failed to show that she was entitled to punitive damages. The plaintiff appealed.

The appeals court agreed with the trial court's dismissal of the lawsuit. It noted that a claim of negligence requires proof of the following elements: (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct by the defendant falling below the standard of care amounting to a breach of that duty; (3) an injury or loss; and (4) the injury or loss was reasonably foreseeable "by a person of ordinary intelligence and prudence." The court concluded that the victim's suicide was not reasonably foreseeable and so the school was not responsible for it:

If a school is aware of a student being bullied but does nothing to prevent the bullying, it is reasonably foreseeable that the victim of the bullying might resort to self-harm, even suicide… . Thus, to allege successfully that the victim's suicide was foreseeable [the plaintiff's] complaint should have included facts alleging that the school was aware of the abuse and harassment the victim experienced. The complaint fails to make such allegations. The fact that the students responsible for bullying him had a history of this behavior does not establish the school's knowledge that they continued to be bullies or that the victim was their new victim. The plaintiff provides no facts that any teacher saw or heard the bullying, that [she or her son] told anyone at the school what was happening, or any other fact to support an inference that the school had any knowledge of the situation.
A school with no knowledge of bullying has no reason to believe the anti-bullying policy needs enforcement, let alone that failure to enforce the policy may result in a student's death. Therefore, we cannot conclude that the harm giving rise to the lawsuit could have reasonably been foreseen or anticipated by a person of ordinary intelligence and prudence.

The appeals court also agreed with the trial court's rejection of punitive damages:

Under state law [the plaintiff] would be eligible for punitive damages only if the district court found that the school acted recklessly. A person acts recklessly when the person is aware of, but consciously disregards, a substantial and unjustifiable risk of such a nature that its disregard constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise under all the circumstances. The trial court found that the plaintiff failed to allege facts showing that the school was aware the victim might try to hurt himself, or that it was aware but consciously disregarded the risk, and therefore decided punitive damages were not appropriate. The plaintiff points to no facts explaining why the decision to deny punitive damages was an abuse of the trial court's discretion, beyond claiming that the court's determination on the question of recklessness was incorrect. This claim was properly dismissed.

What this means for churches

This case is instructive for the following reasons. First, it is one of the few cases to address the liability of a religious organization for bullying activities. The court concluded that a religious organization is not responsible for deaths or injuries caused by bullying unless it was aware of the bullying activities that led to the injury or death and failed to intervene. Second, the court concluded that punitive damages were not appropriate in this case, even if the school had been negligent, since its conduct did not meet the high threshold of punitive damages—reckless behavior or gross negligence.

The implication is clear. Church leaders that know about bullying activities have a duty to intervene, and failure to do so may lead to liability based on negligence, and, possibly, punitive damages. It should be noted that punitive damages are monetary damages awarded by a jury "in addition to compensation for a loss sustained, in order to punish, and make an example of, the wrongdoer." They are awarded when a person's conduct is reprehensible and outrageous. Most church insurance policies exclude punitive damages. This means that a jury award of punitive damages represents an uninsured risk. Tumminello v. High School, 678 Fed.Appx. 281 (6th Cir. 2017).

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Posted:
  • April 18, 2018
  • Last Reviewed: March 15, 2021