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Georgia Court of Appeals Rules Atlanta Public School Teacher Entitled to Immunity After Death of Student

Written by: Eric A. Hoffman, Esq.

In a January 9, 2017 opinion, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that an Atlanta Public School teacher was entitled to official immunity in a wrongful death suit filed by a student’s parents. The case, Barnett v. Atlanta Indep. School System, stemmed from an incident that occurred when the teacher left her classroom unattended for a brief period of time to use the restroom. In upholding immunity for the teacher, the Court relied on Georgia precedent that decisions regarding student supervision are discretionary in nature and thus provide for official immunity.

On October 14, 2008, teacher Phyllis Caldwell was a teacher for the at Benjamin E. Mays High School in West Atlanta. At about 2:45 p.m., Caldwell left the classroom and asked the teacher of the neighboring classroom to “look out” for and listen for any issues from her class, which she had reportedly done previously. While Caldwell was out of the room, Antoine Williams and another student engaged in horseplay that caused the two to fall to the floor. When they fell, the other student fell on top of Williams. Caldwell returned to her classroom about fifteen minutes later and observed Williams sitting at his desk, and left again to look for students who had left the room while she was gone. When the teacher returned, she found Williams lying unconscious on the floor. 911 was called and Williams was transported to the hospital, where he was later pronounced dead. Medical examiners later learned that when the student fell on top of Williams, he dislocated his collarbone and lacerated a major blood vessel causing him to bleed to death internally.

Williams’s family filed suit alleging that Caldwell was liable in her individual capacity because she left the room unsupervised in violation of school policy 6.5, which provides:

The classroom teacher is solely responsible for the supervision of any student in his or her classroom. Students are never to be left in the classroom unsupervised by an APS certified employee.

The trial court granted summary judgment to Caldwell on the grounds that her absence was a discretionary act, which entitled her to official immunity. The family appealed arguing that Policy 6.5 was a clear and unambiguous school policy that created an absolute duty on the teacher. Therefore, the family argued that Caldwell’s actions were ministerial in nature and she was not entitled to official immunity.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals disagreed finding that Caldwell was entitled to immunity. While recognizing that drawing the line between ministerial and discretionary functions was difficult, “it is well-established that the task of supervising and controlling students is a discretionary act entitled to official immunity.” The Court stated that while a written policy may establish a ministerial duty, it does not categorically do so. In determining whether an act is discretionary or ministerial, such a determination must be made on a case-by-case basis and will “depend[] on the character of the specific action complained of, not the general nature of the job.” In granting the teacher immunity, the Court found that by asking the neighboring teacher to “listen out” for her class showed Caldwell’s use of discretion regarding the supervision of her students. While Caldwell’s ultimate decision and exercise of discretion ended up being “tragically wrong,” the Court refused to second guess Caldwell’s decision and her exercise of discretion.