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Overcoming Sovereign Immunity: Holding Government, Workers Accountable in Florida Injury Lawsuits

The sovereign immunity doctrine in Florida bars lawsuits in state court against a state government, as well as its agencies and subdivision, absent governmental consent. Although proponents of this theory say it allows for governmental discretion by allowing officials to engage in flexible decision-making without risk of liability and protects public funds, opponents say it fails to discourage wrong-doing and leaves injured parties with no viable remedy. 

Florida’s waiver of sovereign immunity is outlined in F.S. 768.28, a lengthy and complex statute that allows for various stipulations on suing the government or government employees for negligence. Even if you win, your damage award will be capped at $200,000 a person and $300,000 total per claim (no matter how many claimants), unless the state legislature passes a bill that allows for a higher amount in any given case. This doesn’t mean it’s never worthwhile to pursue compensation from a government agency or worker if you’re injured owing to their negligence, but it’s important to understand there will be a number of challenges, which is why hiring an experienced Orlando injury attorney is so critical.

A recent case considered by the Georgia Supreme Court considered a wrongful death claim involving the tragic death of a student engaged in horseplay in an unsupervised classroom. His parents alleged it was the result of negligence in whole or in part of the teacher who left the room. However, the teacher was a governmental employee, and as such, the question of official immunity was raised. 

The key question that had to be answered here was whether the teacher’s duty to supervise the students was ministerial or discretionary. A ministerial function of a government employee is generally one that simply conforms with applicable statutes, ordinances or regulations. Discretionary functions, meanwhile, are those wherein some deliberation or personal decision-making is required. In general, discretionary acts by government workers are protected by sovereign immunity, while ministerial acts are not. (This is pretty standard in most states, including both Florida and Georgia.)

Here, the facts are this:

One afternoon in October 2008 at a high school in Georgia, a teacher left her classroom, which was in a “cluster” system, sharing an entrance with that of another classroom, with the classes being divided by a bi-fold wall. The teacher on the other side of the wall could not see into the unsupervised classroom, though he was advised the teacher next door was stepping out for a few minutes. A hall monitor and a principal were nearby, but the teacher did not seek their assistance for supervision.

With the teacher gone, two students engaged in horseplay that resulted in one falling to the floor and the other falling on top of him. The one on bottom became unconscious. When the teacher returned to the room a full half hour after she left, she discovered the student on the floor and called 911. He was transported to a local hospital, where he died. An autopsy determined the student died from blood loss resulting from a laceration of a major blood vessel by his dislocated collarbone.

The teacher initially told her boss she was in the room the whole time, but later the principal learned in fact the teacher was not there. The teacher changed her story several times, and it is noted that the school’s staff handbook mandates teachers are solely responsible for the supervision of any student in his/ her class and that students are never to be left alone in a room unsupervised. Although the handbook doesn’t define “unsupervised,” the principal later testified he believed it to mean students should never be out of a teacher’s eyesight. He did acknowledge there could be conditions wherein a teacher might need to leave a classroom for up to 15 minutes, and that other teachers could be “supervising” students by simply hearing them and having a general understanding of what was happening inside, they could supervise without having eyeballs on them.

Decedent’s parents sued for wrongful death, alleging the teacher, among others, were liable for negligent supervision. They alleged the teacher was liable in her individual capacity because she left the classroom not supervised in violation of the school district’s policy.

Trial court granted summary judgment to the teacher, finding the absence was a discretionary act that entitled her to official immunity. The appellate court affirmed, citing “well-established precedent” that decisions that relate to the control and supervision of students are discretionary acts, for which teachers should be entitled to official immunity.

The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed, but was careful to note that student supervision is not always in every case unalterably discretionary in every respect. However in this case, the court held the school’s policy on student supervision wasn’t detailed enough to make the teacher’s acts ministerial. Therefore, her acts were discretionary and she was entitled to official immunity.

Although this is a deeply disappointing outcome for the plaintiffs in this case, it does at least open the door for future wrongful death or personal injury lawsuits stemming from negligent supervisions of students in a school setting.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

Barnett v. Caldwell, Jan. 29, 2018, Georgia Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Be Mindful of Workers’ Compensation Lien on Third-Party Settlements and Verdicts, Dec. 24, 2018, Orlando Wrongful Death Attorney Blog

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