Tuesday, February 27, 2018

City not liable for bullying that resulted in child's quadriplegia, Mass. supreme court holds (and note on infantilization of faculty in higher ed)

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) affirmed application of the Massachusetts Torts Claims Act (MTCA) to protect the City of Lynn, north of Boston, from liability in a tragic bullying incident that resulted in the permanent paralysis of the victim, a fourth grader.  The case is Corimer v. Lynn, No. SJC-12323 (Feb. 27, 2018).

The boy's mother had reported bullying and harassment of her son on "multiple occasions" in the 2007-08 school year.  Ultimately bullies pushed the boy down stairs, resulting in damage to his spinal cord and in quadriplegia.

The 1978 MTCA waives sovereign immunity, but a public actor may be held liable for the tort or violence of a third party only if the public actor "originally caused" the "harmful consequences."  Mass. G. L. c. 258, § 10 (j).  The courts have struggled to interpret that language, but have, as the SJC restated the rule, looked for "an affirmative act that materially contributed to creating a condition or situation that resulted in [plaintiff's] injuries."  A failure to act is distinguished.

The school left the bullies in class in proximity to the plaintiff, and we may assume arguendo that the school was negligent in failing to protect the plaintiff.  Even so, those failures were "'too remote as a matter of law'" to represent material contribution to the plaintiff's injuries.  In essence, then the "originally caused" standard seems to effect a causation-at-law analysis heightened above even the stringent inquiry invoked upon an intervening criminal actor.  On the same basis, the court rejected ancillary plaintiff theories predicated on negligent hiring, supervision, and retention of school staff.

The SJC acknowledged "that bullying is a serious issue" comprising "the emotional pain of day-to-day harassment" and sometimes, as here, "horrific physical consequences."  "[T]he elementary school could have and should have done more to protect [the plaintiff]."  Nevertheless, the operation of the MTCA is textbook, furthering the "public policy [of] some reasonable limits to governmental liability in order for taxpayers to avoid a potentially catastrophic financial burden."

Allow me a tangential observation about bullying policy:  

Many workplace entities, private and public, and including my own, are busily about the business of formulating "anti-bullying" policies.  At least in the academic context, I find these efforts nothing less than an end-run of contract, tenure, and academic freedom, calculated to suppress dissent and vigorous debate.  This SJC case indirectly illustrates the problem.  

Bullying is a concept derived from the K12 environment.  In the adult workplaceespecially in the academic workplace, where the very job is the exercise of free expression—bullying is co-extensive with harassment, discrimination, tort, and crime.  All of those were present in Corimer, harassment even before the child was physically injured.  There is no need for a separate policy purportedly to enforce civility (as if such a thing even were possible) among adults.  Any effort to create such a policy is nothing more than an authoritarian perversion of modish terminology—on campus, the infantilization of the faculty—and a disservice to children who truly are bullied in school.

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