School Districts: Vicarious & Direct Liability

C.A. v. William S. Hart Union High School, (Supreme Court of California, March 8, 2012) 54 Cal.4th 861, 270 P.3d 699, 138 Cal.Rptr.3d 1, 276 Ed. Law Rep. 1048, 12 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 2817, 2012 Daily Journal D.A.R. 3131

A teenage boy who alleged he was sexually molested by his high school guidance counselor filed an action against the school district and the counselor. The complaint alleged that the counselor had “sexually harassed, abused and molested” the plaintiff on a number of occasions over a period of eight months, and asserted causes of action against the school and the district for, inter alia, negligence, negligent supervision, and negligent hiring and/or retention.

The district demurred to the complaint, arguing that it could not be held liable in tort in the absence of an authorizing statute or enactment, that it could not be vicariously liable for the actions of the counselor, and that allegations of negligent hiring, training and supervision do not apply to a public entity. The trial court sustained the district’s demurrer without leave to amend, and the court of appeal affirmed, holding that the facts as alleged did not support a claim for vicarious liability. The court also held that no statute allowed a direct cause of action for negligence against the district, and that no mandatory duty subjected the district to liability.

However, the California Supreme Court reversed, holding that a public school district may be vicariously liable under Government Code § 815.2 for the negligence of administrators or supervisors in hiring, supervising and retaining a school employee who sexually harasses and abuses a student:

“We conclude plaintiff’s theory of vicarious liability for negligent hiring, retention and supervision is a legally viable one. Ample case authority establishes that school personnel owe students under their supervision a protective duty of ordinary care, for breach of which the school district may be held vicariously liable. (See, e.g., Dailey v. Los Angeles Unified Sch. Dist. (1970) 2 Cal.3d 741, 747, 87 Cal.Rptr. 376, 470 P.2d 360; Leger v. Stockton Unified School Dist. (1988) 202 Cal.App.3d 1448, 1458–1461, 249 Cal.Rptr. 688.) If a supervisory or administrative employee of the school district is proven to have breached that duty by negligently exposing plaintiff to a foreseeable danger of molestation by his guidance counselor, resulting in his injuries, and assuming no immunity provision applies, liability falls on the school district under section 815.2.
. . .
[W]e have weighed in this case the value of negligence actions in providing compensation to injured parties and preventing future harm of the same nature, and have followed John R.’s suggestion that these remedial goals are best addressed “by holding school districts to the exercise of due care” in their administrators’ and supervisors’ “selection of [instructional] employees and the close monitoring of their conduct,” rather than by making districts vicariously liable for the intentional sexual misconduct of teachers and other employees. (Ibid.) At the same time, we emphasize that a district’s liability must be based on evidence of negligent hiring, supervision or retention, not on assumptions or speculation. That an individual school employee has committed sexual misconduct with a student or students does not of itself establish, or raise any presumption, that the employing district should bear liability for the resulting injuries. We note, as well, that even when negligence by an administrator or supervisor is established, the greater share of fault will ordinarily lie with the individual who intentionally abused or harassed the student than with any other party, and that fact should be reflected in any allocation of comparative fault.”

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