Courts Continue to Uphold Political Subdivision Immunity in Favor of School Boards

In two recent cases, a court of appeals has upheld political subdivision immunity in favor of school boards who have been sued by students and/or their parents.

In the first case, decided on March 26, 2020, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth District found in favor of the school board when the board requested the case be dismissed on immunity grounds. The case involved claims that, during the school’s annual class rocket launch, one of the rockets veered off course and struck appellant on her right lower leg, causing burns and scarring. The complaint further alleged that the teacher who supervised the launch failed to take proper precautions in launching the rocket. Additionally, alleged the school board permitted an unsafe environment and failed to require proper instruction. The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the accident was due to a physical defect on the grounds or buildings owned by the school district, therefore destroying the Board’s asserted immunity defense. The Court found that the rocket failure did not result from a physical defect on the grounds or buildings of the school district, and further, that the teacher exercised judgment and discretion in conducting the experiment. The Court opined that so long as the teacher did not act in a wanton or reckless manner, the teacher and the Board were immune from liability. An individual is deemed to act wantonly if that person acts without consideration of possible harmful consequences. A person who is reckless is aware that one’s conduct creates an unreasonable risk of physical harm to another, and proceeds anyway.

In a separate Tenth District case, also decided on March 26, 2020, the court upheld the immunity defense for a school board and its athletic staff after a sixteen-year-old student-athlete drowned while on a team basketball summer beach trip to Fripp Island. Here, the Court found that immunity “extends to most school activities and administrative functions of the educational process, even if not directly comprising part of the classroom teaching process.” The trip was organized by the head varsity basketball coach, whose job description indicates that the position is a year-round assignment, and the trip counted toward the number of days that the coach is permitted to provide organized basketball instruction to the team, per the Ohio High School Athletic Association (“OHSAA”) guidelines. The connection of the outing to functions of the educational process was considered by the court. The athletic director, the principal, and the superintendent were aware of and approved the Fripp Island trip. The school district provided a vehicle to transport players, the team members wore their school practice uniforms while they participated in practice, and participated in scrimmages against other teams during the five days of the trip. Similarly, the Court found that the coach and staff did not act in a reckless or wanton manner and thus were immune from liability in the exercise of discretion and judgment that are part of their job duties.

These cases emphasize that Ohio courts will recognize and enforce the immunity defense when properly applied and in the absence of wanton, reckless, or otherwise irresponsible actions on the part of district staff. The extension of this coverage to activities often seen as outside the scope of the educational process enlarges staff protections in its many areas of student supervision.  

Douglas v. Columbus City Schools Bd. of Edn., 2020-Ohio-1133
Michael v. Worthington City School Dist., 2020-Ohio-1134