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Ohio Appellate Court Affirms Dismissal of Claims Against School District and Its Employees for School Shooting

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By Holly Marie Wilson

June 19, 2019

Today, school shootings are an increasingly commonplace tragedy impacting communities, families and school districts across the country. Recently, Ohio’s Eleventh District Court of Appeals rejected several families’ attempt to hold the Chardon Local Schools liable for a 2012 school shooting in which three students lost their lives.  

Parmertor v. Chardon Local Sch., 2019-Ohio-328, emanates from a tragic shooting at Chardon High School on February 27, 2012, that resulted in the deaths of three students and injuries to three others. Thereafter, a complaint was filed in the Lake County Court of Common Pleas on February 27, 2014 on behalf of the estates of several of the deceased and/or injured students. The complaint alleged causes of action for wrongful death, negligence and recklessness, conscious disregard, malice, willful and wanton misconduct, survivorship and loss of consortium against various schools, school officials, school employees and members of the Chardon School Board. The claims were ultimately dismissed by the trial court on motion practice because plaintiffs failed to overcome the application of Ohio’s general grant of immunity for political subdivisions and their employees.

The trial court examined Ohio’s statutory immunity and held that school districts and their employees are immune from liability in civil actions brought to recover damages for injury, death or loss to person or property allegedly caused by an act or omission in connection with a governmental or proprietary function. R.C. 2744.03(A). There are exceptions to this immunity, including, as argued in this case, when the employee’s acts or omissions were with malicious purpose, in bad faith, or in a wanton or reckless manner. R.C. 2744.03(A)(6)(b).

While the question of whether a political subdivision employee’s entitlement to immunity is ordinarily a question of law, where there exists allegations of malice, bad faith, and wanton or reckless behavior the question is typically one of fact to be resolved by a jury. In such cases, only when the facts are clear and fail to rise to the level of conduct that could be construed as malicious, in bad faith, or wanton and reckless is summary judgment permitted. 

On appeal, the court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit, holding that there was no evidence in the record that any of the school employees were aware of but consciously disregarded the shooter’s propensity for violence or his intention to carry out an attack on the school. In fact, there was no evidence that the shooter had any propensity for violence until the shooting occurred. There had never been any history of violent crime at the high school. The school and its employees engaged in efforts to increase security and safety by having staff and administrators act as a visible presence throughout the school. School officials and employees considered the safety and security of students and staff their top priority. The school administrators worked with local law enforcement to provide safety training to students and staff and each school conducted state-mandated emergency drills, including an active shooter drill with the involvement of local police and fire departments. The school had a safety and security plan in place, which was evaluated by law enforcement for possible improvements and law enforcement was never critical of these protocols. Police officers were in the building on a daily basis and the local police department also required an officer to walk through the high school twice a day when school was in session. These facts, coupled with the trial court’s extensive evidentiary record, led the appellate court to conclude that the dismissal of the school and its employees was proper.

While the trial and appellate court did ultimately grant judgment in favor of the school district, its officials and employees, it is important to note that the court only did so after a careful review of the school district’s extensive safety and security protocols. This decision does not recognize blanket immunity for all school districts facing similar claims. In today’s society, where such shootings are unfortunately on the rise, all school districts must make student safety a top priority.

If you have any questions regarding this decision and the impact it has on Ohio’s schools, or any other issue pertaining to the public or private school or college/university environments, please contact any member of our Education Law Liability Practice Group.  

This has been prepared for informational purposes only. It does not contain legal advice or legal opinion and should not be relied upon for individual situations. Nothing herein creates an attorney-client relationship between the Reader and Reminger. The information in this document is subject to change and the Reader should not rely on the statements in this document without first consulting legal counsel.

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