On April 4, 2017, the New Jersey Appellate Division issued a major opinion which should help school boards achieve immunity from suit in numerous cases. See N.E., As Legal Guardian for Infant J.V. vs. State of New Jersey. The decision, which reversed a jury judgment of over $100 million, concerned a negligent action by a worker for the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services. The Appellate Division held that the jury verdict should be set aside since the negligent actions of a public employee should generally be entitled to immunity under the NJ Tort Claims Act, the same Act which governs school boards.
The critical holding by the Appellate Division was that even though none of the negligent Division employees were “the lead employee of the office, let alone [ ] the agency,” they and their employer were entitled to immunity from liability. Accordingly, school boards should be entitled to immunity from liability under the Tort Claims Act even if the negligent action or decision being attacked was not made by a school board, superintendent of schools, principal or supervisor. It had previously been thought that if a lower level employee – a teacher, cafeteria worker, class room aide, custodian, etc. – made a negligent decision or action the school would normally be faced with liability.
The Appellate Division focused on the importance of allowing public entities and their employees to exercise discretion. If a public school employee makes a decision – suspending one pupil, not suspending another, guarding one door of a school building and not another, etc. – there should be no liability as long as the employee weighed the pros and cons of the decision.
This means that in the future if public school employees exercise their discretion in carrying out their tasks, they, and the school boards they work for, should not have liability even if there are unfortunate results. Sometimes school children, teachers or members of the public are hurt in public schools. Sometimes there is bullying, fighting, poor behavior, or injury. The school board, faced with large numbers of problems and limited resources, should not be liable for these injuries as long as it exercised its judgment, even if occasionally erroneously, to do the best it could. Hopefully, schools will prevail more often when faced with lawsuits.