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Parents Prevented from Suing Teacher After Child Dies in Classroom

The parents of a seventh grader filed a wrongful death lawsuit against a teacher after their child died under her care. The parents alleged that the teacher, who left her classroom unsupervised in violation of a school policy, caused the death of their child. In a recent opinion, a Georgia appeals court dismissed the lawsuit, finding the teacher was entitled to official immunity. The teacher was working at Benjamin E. Mays High School, a public school in Atlanta. The child was a seventh-grade student in the teacher’s classroom, which shared a bi-fold wall with another classroom.

ClassroomAccording to the allegations, one afternoon, the teacher left the classroom. While the teacher was gone, the child and another student engaged in horseplay. The child fell, and the other student landed on top of him. The teacher returned about 15 minutes later and then left again. The child then collapsed and became unconscious. The teacher returned about 15 minutes later and called 911. The child was pronounced dead at the hospital. The autopsy revealed that he died from blood loss, resulting from the dislocation of his collarbone.

Purportedly, the teacher originally was not truthful when asked about the incident, telling the principal she was in the classroom the entire time. Soon afterward, it was revealed that the teacher had left the classroom. It was unclear why the teacher left the classroom. In her deposition, the teacher said that she had asked the teacher in the adjoining room to listen for her class when she left the first time, but not when she left the second time. The school had a policy that stated that students were never to be left in the classroom unsupervised.

The Court’s Decision

The court explained that official immunity affords public employees immunity for their performance or nonperformance of their official functions. An official function means “any act performed within the officer’s or employee’s scope of authority, including both ministerial and discretionary acts.” There is no immunity for negligently performed ministerial acts or for acts performed with malice or an intent to injure. However, there is immunity for negligently performed discretionary acts. Georgia courts have held that the task of supervising and controlling students is a discretionary act. Even the fact that a teacher violated an official policy does not make an act ministerial. As a result, the teacher’s actions were discretionary and entitled to official immunity, and the case was dismissed against the teacher.

Official Immunity in Georgia:  Ministerial Versus Discretionary Acts

Immunity means that certain entities and individuals cannot be sued under some circumstances. In Georgia, one category of immunity is official immunity, which is afforded to public employees. However, as explained in this case, there are distinctions between acts that are ministerial and discretionary. Generally, ministerial acts are those are that definite and absolute, and they require “merely the execution of a specific duty.” Discretionary acts are those that call for “the exercise of personal deliberation and judgment,” without specific direction. Whether an act is ministerial or discretionary depends on the facts of the case. But as in the case above, this seemingly small distinction can have an enormous impact in a case.

Consult an Experienced Personal Injury Lawyer in Atlanta

The McAleer Law Firm is ready to fight for the rights of victims in the Atlanta metro area and other Georgia communities, such as Alpharetta, Conyers, Decatur, Gainesville, Lawrenceville, Macon, Norcross, Roswell, Sandy Springs, and Stone Mountain. Our Atlanta premises liability attorneys can help you explore your full range of options and advocate vigorously throughout the legal process. Call us at 404-622-5337 or contact us through our online form.

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