May a public school district be held liable when school supervisors allegedly negligently hire, retain or supervise a school guidance counselor who purportedly molests a student, when the school supervisors who hired the counselor knew or should have known that that the counselor had a history of child molestation? Yes, according the unanimous decision by the California Supreme Court in the case of C.A., a minor v. William S. Hart Union High School District.
The question may be simple and the answer may be appear be even more simple to many people. The trial and appellate courts, however, thought differently by deciding that the public school district had no such duty for the acts of its supervisors at the school, and therefore, the school district as a whole was not liable for the harm to the student.
If one reads the case carefully, the issue is not whether the school district is liable to the student for the acts of the allegedly molesting counselor; but rather is the school district liable to individual student because the supervisors at that individual school allowed the counselor to work at the school knowing of the counselor’s actions? This question required an in depth focus on the laws of vicarious liability and respondeat superior, which typically means one being responsible for the acts of another.
In answering the question, the California Supreme Court held that the school supervisors owe its students a duty of care, and that the school district can be liable for the negligence of those individual supervisors. In support of its holding, the California Supreme Court held that there is a “special relationship” between the schools, supervisors and its students. Quoting from the case, the Court stated that:
“…a school district and its employees have a special relationship with the district’s pupils, a relationship arising from the mandatory character of school attendance and the comprehensive control over students exercised by school personnel, “analogous in many ways to the relationship between parents and their children.” (Hoff v. Vacaville Unified School Dist., supra, 19 Cal.4th at p. 935; see M.W. v. Panama Buena Vista Union School Dist. (2003) 110 Cal.App.4th 508, 517; Leger v. Stockton Unified School Dist., supra, 202 Cal.App.3d at pp. 1458-1459.)… 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; Leger v. Stockton Unified School Dist. (1988) 202 Cal.App.3d 1448, 1458- 1461.) 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 Government Code section 815.2.”
To sum up, what this case means is that the school district, and not just the individual school and supervisors, can be held liable for the acts of the supervisors at the school that leads to harm to its students. In light of the recent and ongoing allegations/investigations of public schools in California, school districts will not always be able to shield itself from the harm suffered by its students.