Written by attorney Stephen Kirk Sugarman

Who is Liable for the Bully on the Bus?

Bullying in schools remains an ongoing concern for parents, teachers and administrators in Massachusetts, and has made sad and disturbing headlines in recent years and months.

Students not only face bullying on school property but also on school buses transporting them for school purposes. Massachusetts’ law requires school bus companies and their drivers to exercise reasonable care to safeguard student passengers from harm, including bullying by fellow students, which as we all know causes physical or emotional damage.

Bus companies and their drivers can be held accountable under Massachusetts’ law for failing to identify, intervene and stop bullying on a school bus, and may be required to pay money damages to victims and their families for their failures. There are several Massachusetts laws under which a bullying victim may recover for the damage done by bullying.

Under traditional legal principles, bus companies that transport school children owe the duties and responsibilities of a “common carrier" to student-passengers. In Massachusetts, “common carriers" owe the highest degree of care to protect their passengers from the harmful acts of others. Under this body of law, bus companies can be held absolutely liable for the misconduct of employee drivers and others, including students, causing harm on the bus. The underlying rationale for holding bus companies to the highest duty of care is that there is little a passenger can do to safeguard their own safety and the passenger must rely upon the protection and vigilance of the carrier. When a bus driver improperly fails to stop bullying on a school bus, the bus company is likely responsible for the harm resulting from the driver’s failure to live up to this high standard.

In addition to liability as a common carrier, bus companies can be responsible for simple negligence in failing to address bullying. A careless or oblivious bus driver whose carelessness causes injuries to a student renders the bus company liable under Massachusetts’ law.

Massachusetts’ new anti-bullying law has further clarified the responsibilities of bus companies and their drivers to prevent bullying on school buses, and serves as added protection and proof of the violations of the duties discussed above. On May 3, 2010, Governor Patrick signed into law “An Act Relative to Bullying in Schools." The “Act" is codified under Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 71, Section 37O.

The Act defines some types of bullying as a criminal act when it occurs on school grounds, bus stops and on school buses. The Act further requires schools to develop bullying prevention plans and to train all educators, administrators, and bus drivers in the identification and prevention of bullying, consistent with the plan.

Importantly, under the Act, school bus drivers are legally required to undergo professional training and development to prevent bullying on school buses. The Act thereby provides legal standards for bullying prevention. These written and required standards can work hand-in-hand with traditional “common carriers" and negligence principles, to create liability for personal injuries suffered when bus companies fail to protect the safety and welfare of their passengers. This is because failure to comply with such standards will be admissible in Court as evidence that the bus company failed to live up to its duty under the law.

The bottom line is that a school bus driver’s failure to intervene and prevent bullying on the bus may make the driver and school bus company liable for the harm which results from the bullying. Children and families harmed by bullying, whether on the school bus or otherwise, should seek legal counsel if they wish to pursue a claim for compensation beyond any punishments that may or may not befall the bully.

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