Public-Duty Doctrine: Negligence Case Against Teacher Dismissed

By: Brittany Newell and Josh Douglass

An uncomfortable truth is that no parent can be with their child every second of every day. Many parents must rely on the eyes and ears of others to help protect their children. In the school system in particular, parents and the community rely on the supervision of teachers and staff to help protect their children in their absence. And while school staff are not insurers of student’s safety, there is no question that teachers and school administrators are in a unique position to protect students; a position that school districts take seriously.

What is debated, however, is whether a teacher who receives information pertaining to potential child abuse or sexual harassment can be held personally liable for negligence if the teacher is claimed to have failed to appropriately report the information and harm happens to the child. This is the issue that Mickes O’Toole was recently successful in litigating on behalf of a school teacher.

On April 21, 2020, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District upheld a motion to dismiss filed by Mickes O’Toole on behalf of the school district teacher. The suit involved a negligence claim against a teacher for her alleged failure to report a student’s disclosure of potential sexual abuse and harassment to State or school authorities.

The hallmark of any negligence claim is a breach of duty. The public duty doctrine can preclude that duty. In other words, the doctrine is not an affirmative defense, but defines the bounds of the legal duty owed. The public duty doctrine holds that public employees cannot be held civilly liable when the duty owed is to the general public rather than to a specific individual. Because of the absence of a duty owed to a particular individual, the duty element for civil causes of actions is not present. Therefore the distinction between a duty to all students and a duty to a particular student is critical in determining whether a teacher can be held personally liable for an alleged negligent act.

The plaintiff argued to the Court of Appeals that the teacher established an individual duty to the student when the student shared information with the teacher of potential abuse and harassment. Mickes O’Toole, on behalf of the teacher, argued that the duty to report was owed to the general public, not to the individual student. The Court agreed. The Court held the student’s disclosure did not transform the teacher’s duty to one owed specifically to the student; instead, the duty to report, in this case, was owed to the general public. Therefore, the student’s negligence claim was dismissed.

In upholding the motion to dismiss, the Court determined the applicability of the public duty doctrine to both the child abuse reporting statute (RSMo 210.115) and the school board harassment reporting regulation at issue. The Court found both contained language reflective of an intent to protect a group at large, not just a specific individual. The Court, therefore, held the public duty doctrine applied and precluded personal liability for the teacher’s alleged negligent failure to report.

It is important to note however, that the public-duty doctrine’s protections are not limitless. Public employees can still be personally liable for civil claims if they breach a ministerial duty in which an injured party had a “special, direct, or distinctive interest.” The Court notes that this exception comes into play when injury to a particular, identifiable individual is reasonably foreseeable as a result of the public employee’s breach of duty. In addition, the public duty doctrine does not lend protection to public employees who act in bad faith or with malice. Though the public duty doctrine’s protections are not infinite, this Court opinion is a victory for public schools and their staff as it expounds upon personal liability protections for public employees.

The Court’s opinion can be found below.

Further questions may be directed to Mickes O’Toole on this and related subjects.

McInnis Signed Majority Opinion

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