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Indiana Supreme Court Rejects Wrongful Death Claim Due to High Schooler’s Contributory Negligence

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By Codie Ross

August 15, 2019

In Indiana, public school corporations enjoy immunity for claims against them when a plaintiff’s contributory negligence plays any role in that person’s harm.  The Indiana Supreme Court recently reaffirmed that notion when finding that a 16-year-old boy’s contributory negligence played a role in his own death.

The recently-decided case, Katrina Murray, et al. v. Arlington Community High School, et al., 19S-CT-282, involved then-16-year-old, Jaylan Murray, whose murdered body was found at an apartment complex across the street from Indianapolis’ Arlington Community High School, where he was a student.  Jaylan had earlier left school grounds without signing out at the front desk.  He was later murdered in the apartment complex that same day. The school was aware that Jaylan was a frequent runaway and had an active Department of Child Services case file.

The deceased boy’s co-personal representatives filed a wrongful death suit against Indianapolis Public Schools and Arlington, alleging negligence for failing to properly supervise and monitor students during school hours.  The Marion Superior Court  initially granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, but the Indiana Court of Appeals reinstated the case when it found genuine issues of material fact as to Arlington’s duty to supervise its students. In its appeal to the Supreme Court, Arlington argued that the Court of Appeals was incorrect in finding the public school corporation was not entitled to immunity under the Indiana Tort Claims Act for Jaylan’s wrongful death.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school and affirmed the trial court.  In doing so, Justice Steven David wrote, “Here, Jaylan was sixteen. While his estate argues that the specific reason for Jaylan’s departure from school is unknown, no one contends there are any special circumstances that would render Jaylan incapable of exercising this standard of care. Thus, he is charged with exercising the reasonable care an adult would.”

It was also determined that there was no dispute that Jaylan was involved in criminal activity the night before his murder, that he left school to engage in more criminal activity, and that he was found with a large amount of money in an apartment known for criminal activity.  Justice David went on to write, “In either case, it is clear that his leaving school to purchase either guns or drugs was not an exercise of reasonable care and caution for his safety. While a sixteen-year-old may not know all the perils that await him off of school grounds, he certainly knew there was danger in either of those two ventures. As such, Jaylan was contributorily negligent.

Given the ever-evolving safety considerations taken on behalf of students, the decision is a favorable one for public schools as they endeavor to care for the safety of their students with the understanding that those students are still responsible for their own actions.  If you would like a copy of  the full decision, or if you have any questions regarding this or other education law issues, 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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