Boundaries: The Court Limits District Liability For Shootings

August 20, 2021 / Writing and Speaking

By Paul V. Esposito

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw famously said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” We can think back to those carefree teenage days, wishing we had the chance to re-live them. But in truth, the teenage years can be mighty difficult. Remember those failed teenage romances and unrequited loves? Another playwright—this one speaking Elizabethan English—devoted an entire work to a teenage romance gone tragic.

In Arizona, a teenage romance went horrific. It probably wasn’t the first; it likely won’t be the last. But it had a connection to a school. So it gave the state Supreme Court an opportunity to define the limits of school district liability for the failure to provide a better ending to a rocky situation. Dinsmoor v. City of Phoenix, 2021 Ariz. LEXIS 279.

Facts

High school sophomores Matthew and Ana were dating until Matthew broke it off to start dating Raven. When Matthew and Raven later broke up, he became violent with her. Matthew and Ana then resumed dating. During the two relationships, Matthew tried to turn the girls against each other. When Ana and Raven eventually decided to compare notes, they realized that Matthew, who watched them talk, was the real problem. Quite livid, Ana yelled at him about it.

The next day Matthew texted Ana that “we’ll take care [of] it when she’s walking home from the bus.” Ana warned Raven, even telling her that Matthew had a gun. Raven reported the matter to the school vice-principal, who spoke separately with the girls. Ana was worried for Raven but not herself. A school security officer brought into the situation saw Matthew’s texts but did not believe they were threatening. Ana told him that she did not feel threatened; Raven expressed her fear of harm. The officer devised a safety plan for Raven, but not for Ana.

Because Matthew was not at school the next day, the officer did not speak to him. Ana told the vice-principal and security officer that she was going to a friend’s house after school that day to meet Matthew. Both were uneasy but took no action. After Ana arrived, Matthew shot and killed her, and then himself.

Ana’s mother sued the school district, city, vice-principal, and security officer for negligence. The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants on the ground that they lacked a duty to protect Ana under the facts. The court of appeals reversed as to all defendants except the city. It found that a special relationship exists between a school and its students.

Analysis

The Arizona Supreme Court reinstated summary judgment for the school district. Everyone agreed that the school-student relationship is a special relationship imposing an affirmative duty to protect students from unreasonable risks of harm. It flows from a school’s traditional role as a custodian partly acting in a parental role, and opening its premises to a public population. The parties’ disagreement concerned time-and-place limitations on that duty. The district contended that the duty only covered a student while attending school during school hours or participating in off-campus, school sponsored activities. Ana’s mother argued that a duty exists whenever and wherever a school learns of an unreasonable risk while the school had custody and control over a student.

The Supreme Court recognized that a school district’s liability is not limitless but instead is “‘bounded by geography and time.’” A duty only exists while a school is serving in its roles as custodian, landowner, and quasi-parent. Once a student safely leaves a school’s custody and control, the special relationship ends, as does a school’s affirmative duty. The Court found support for its rule from cases in other jurisdictions. 

The Court ruled that the district did not owe an affirmative duty to protect Ana. Matthew aimed his text messages at Raven, not Ana. The Court rejected the mother’s argument that a duty arose because during school hours Ana reported her plan to meet Matthew. That argument did not consider whether the risk of harm to Ana arose within the scope of the student-school special relationship. The Court found that at worst, Matthew’s texts only threatened harm to Raven, not Ana. Ana told school authorities that Matthew did not pose a threat to her. Because there was no evidence that Matthew posed a threat to Ana before she left school to meet him, the school did not owe a duty to protect Ana.

Learning Point: Dinsmoor provides an easily applied test for determining whether a special relationship exists that would impose a duty to protect students. But the Supreme Court cautioned that it was not drawing a bright-line. A school district might remain subject to liability even when its supervision and control had ended for the day (e.g., dismissals into crime scenes or severe weather, or early dismissals when crossing guards are absent). Limited exceptions aside, the test should protect a district from liability for tragic events way out of its control to prevent.

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