Can a Teacher Be Sued? YES! But Don’t Panic!

For aspiring teachers, there are two courses that I would immediately mandate: 1) Acting, and 2) School Law for Teachers. With the exception of a small amount of information related to Special Education Law, there exists no formal instruction designed for teachers. This causes all of us to be dependent upon others, like union officers and grizzled veterans who really don’t know the law but are full of great scary stories about what happened one time or what might happen if threat analysis expert witness you try something and someone gets hurt, or how easily a teacher can be sued because of the crazy lawyers and parents out there, etc. This article will tell you what really happens from the standpoint of legal liability as well as a few other things that might happen in the school setting where legal issues could arise.

REPEATER’S LIABILITY

For example, here is something you have never heard before and nobody talks about that could cause you to be sued: It’s called “Repeater’s Liability.” What is it? You know about the “rumor mill” in your school or place of work. The rumor mill seems to be open 24-7- it never sleeps. Occasionally, someone tells you a story about someone else that, for example, may be shocking or salacious. You hear the rumor and you pass the rumor along to others. The story that is being passed around gets back to the one whom the story is about and this person comes to you and asks if you told this story to a certain person or persons. You reply, yes, you did, but you were merely passing along a story from the rumor mill that almost everyone already knows about, and besides, the story did not originate with you anyway. The person about whom you passed on the story decides to sue you for defamation claiming he was injured by this false story. Your defense is as you stated above- you were merely just passing the story along and you did not know whether it was true or false. Under the Doctrine of Repeater’s Liability, the jury finds you liable for Defamation and you have to pay damages to the person whom the story was about. Do you like gossip? Stop liking it. Repeater’s Liability means that if a person wants to come after you legally for a story that has been spread about him, the court will treat the story being spread as though it ORIGINATED WITH YOU. Do you need any greater motivation for not being a gossiper? This, of course, may cause you to avoid going into a faculty room unless absolutely necessary because these places are virtual gossip pits.

INDEMNIFICATION

Here’s another one you probably never heard of that has the potential to be a problem for you some day. Everyone has heard of the “Deep Pockets Theory”. Thus is part of an old wives tale or urban legend that if you do something negligent you don’t have to be too worried because no lawyer is ever going to come after you- you don’t make enough money to make it worth the Plaintiff’s while. Instead, the injured party is going to sue the school district because they have a much larger liability policy and, quite simply, there is far more money to be had in damages. We’ve all heard this one. Here is the real story. It is possible in a lawsuit that the Plaintiff or injured party will come after just the school district, but he is probably going to come after multiple defendants, including you. However, for the sake of argument, let’s say that a negligent act by you causes a child to be injured, and the attorney for the injured child decides to sue only the school district and the district is found liable for the actions of its employee under a theory of Agency, meaning that the teacher is an agent of the school district. Under the Doctrine if Indemnification, the school district may now sue you to be reimbursed for the amount of damages they were required to pay in the original lawsuit. Thus, “Deep Pockets” or not, your negligent actions can cost you.

RES IPSA LOQUITOR

A third matter that you never heard about that could affect you by way of the above-described indemnification process is Res Ipsa Loquitor. It’s a very pretentious sounding legal term. It is merely Latin for “The Thing or event speaks for itself”. In the typical example, a child goes to school, and while sitting in a class, for example, a light fixture falls from the ceiling, hits the child in the head, and causes a serious injury. Here, the plaintiff will not have to prove that someone is negligent because, the court will reason that when a child goes to school, he is not supposed to be hit in the head by a light fixture and get injured. This is Negligence Per Se- there is nothing for the Plaintiff to prove- it’s obvious- the school is at fault. The district will be liable for damages. In a subsequent investigation, the district finds out that this happened once before in your class and you did not report it to anyone because no one got hurt anyway. The district could seek to indemnify you for this amount of damages. This is why, in whatever facility you do your teaching, the minute you find that some part of the facility is not working as designed or is broken, you put a memo- or a district work order- in writing with your signature and copied to the principal- and send it to the custodian or Director of Building and Grounds so that, in any subsequent investigation, you can show that you did all that was within the scope of your duties to remedy this situation. Don’t climb up a ladder and fix the thing yourself. That is outside the scope of your duties and could cause other legal complications.

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