California Supreme Court Rules that School District May be Sued for “Negligent Hiring”

The California Supreme Court has ruled that a school district may face liability if it negligently hired a known child abuser and then allowed the person to closely interact with students as a counselor without adequate supervision.

The case is C.A. (a minor) v. William S. Hart Union High School District.  The facts of the case are compelling.  The complaint alleged that C.A. was a student at a public high school operated by the William S. Hart Union High School District.  The head guidance counselor and advisor at the high school (an employee of the school district) was assigned to “counsel, advise and mentor” C.A.  The complaint alleged that the guidance counselor sexually harassed, abused and molested C.A. on a number of occasions. The complaint further contended that the school district knew that the guidance counselor had engaged in unlawful sexually-related conduct with minors in the past, and/or was continuing to engage in such conduct, but failed to take reasonable steps to prevent further unlawful sexual conduct by the guidance counselor.

The complaint stated causes of action against the school district, the high school, and the guidance counselor for negligence; negligent supervision; negligent hiring and/or retention; negligent failure to warn, train or educate; constructive fraud; intentional infliction of emotional distress; sexual battery; assault; sexual harassment; gender violence; and unfair business practices.

The school district contended that there is no legal right to allege a “negligent hiring claim” against a public entity, and the trial court agreed, dismissing the case. The court of appeal affirmed in a 2-1 decision.  But that was not the end of the matter, because the California Supreme Court granted a hearing and then proceeded to reach a different conclusion.

In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Kathryn Werdegar, the court held that the school district could be liable under a theory of “negligent hiring.”

The court noted that “[u]nless the individual alleged to be negligent in a hiring or retention decision knew or should have known of the dangerous propensities of the employee who injured the plaintiff, there is little or no moral blame attached to the person’s action or inaction.  And unless the employee’s propensities posed a substantial risk of personal injury to the plaintiff or others in the same circumstances, there is again little moral blame to assign, and the undesirable consequences of imposing potential liability—the possible chilling of recommendations and proposals for hiring and retention—will tend to outweigh the policy of preventing harm by imposing costs on negligent conduct.”

The court went on to note that it had “noted with concern the undesirable consequences that could flow from imposing vicarious liability on public school districts for sexual misconduct by teachers, including ‘the diversion of needed funds from the classroom to cover claims’ and the likelihood districts would be deterred ‘from encouraging, or even authorizing, extracurricular and/or one-on-one contacts between teachers and students.’  To these still valid concerns we should add the possibility that unsubstantiated rumors of sexual misconduct might curtail or destroy the careers of innocent teachers, counselors or other employees.  Against these concerns, we have weighed in this case the value of negligence actions in providing compensation to injured parties and preventing future harm of the same nature, and have followed [the] suggestion that these remedial goals are best addressed ‘by holding school districts to the exercise of due care’ in their administrators’ and supervisors’ ‘selection of [instructional] employees and the close monitoring of their conduct,’ rather than by making districts vicariously liable for the intentional sexual misconduct of teachers and other employees.”

In her published opinion, Justice Werdegar specifically pointed out that these cases are not easy to prove.  “[W]e emphasize,” she wrote, “that a district’s liability must be based on evidence of negligent hiring, supervision or retention, not on assumptions or speculation.  That an individual school employee has committed sexual misconduct with a student or students does not of itself establish, or raise any presumption, that the employing district should bear liability for the resulting injuries.  We note, as well, that even when negligence by an administrator or supervisor is established, the greater share of fault will ordinarily lie with the individual who intentionally abused or harassed the student than with any other party, and that fact should be reflected in any allocation of comparative fault.”

Having stated those limits, the court ruled that a public school district may be vicariously liable for the negligence of administrators or supervisors in hiring, supervising and retaining a school employee who sexually harasses and abuses a student.  Whether a given plaintiff can prove that a school district’s administrative or supervisory personnel were actually negligent in this respect is a question left to the trial court.

School administrators will surely sit up and take notice of Justice Werdegar’s observation (which mirrored concerns expressed by the dissenting just below in the Court of Appeal) that a school administrators’ negligent acts and omissions in hiring, training, supervising, and retaining the guidance counselor may give rise to their personal liability.

Although the specter of personal liability for a school administrator is surely a cause for concern, as employees of governmental entities, public school administrators who are acting within the course and scope of their employment are entitled to a defense at their employer’s expense, and they can require their employer to pay any judgment based on their negligent conduct. These requirements are clearly set forth in section 825 of the California Government Code.  Justice Werdegar recognized these rights as well in footnote 7 on page 17 of the opinion, where she said that “public employees, including school personnel, are entitled to a defense and indemnity for negligent torts within the scope of their employment.”

A copy of the court’s opinion is attached for your convenience.

Our firm represents school administrators in a variety of contexts.  Please feel free contact us if you need advice in this area.

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