Did the trial court err in finding that a school did not owe a duty to a student injured on its soccer field while skipping class and, moreover, that it was entitled to qualified immunity.
Petitioner was an 18 year old junior attending Oak Hill High School in Fayette County. Petitioner received injuries while he and other students were skipping class and “hanging out” at the school’s soccer field. According to Petitioner, his injuries occurred on June 9, which was the next-to-last day of school for the year. Petitioner’s witnesses testified that the teachers were lax regarding attendance during the last week of school. Petitioner accompanied a group of students to the soccer field, including Levi and Zach, both of whom were wrestlers. After watching the two boys wrestling, Petitioner decided to try. Zach performed a take down, forcing Petitioner to the ground. Petitioner tried to catch himself with his arm, resulting in injuries.
Petitioner sued the Fayette County Board of Education. Because the Board was being overseen by the State of West Virginia due to performance issues, Petitioner also joined the West Virginia Board of Education and the West Virginia Superintendent of Schools. All of these entities are Respondents in this appeal. Respondents moved for summary judgment. On January 31, 2018, the trial court entered an order finding that the school was not under any duty to supervise Petitioner because he was an adult, he had left the “school,” and Respondents did not have actual knowledge that he was wrestling on the nearby soccer field. In any event, supervision of students is a discretionary duty and, therefore, Respondents were entitled to qualified immunity.
Petitioner argues that qualified immunity does not apply. The duty to supervise children in the public schools “is statutory, not discretionary.” W.Va. Code 18A-5-1. Even if the duty to supervise is deemed to be discretionary, Respondents violated a clearly established statutory right “by failing to supervise students entrusted in their care in any substantive way.”
Petitioner also argues that the trial court erred by finding that there was no duty to supervise under the facts presented. First, there is no requirement that the school must have had actual knowledge the of the wrestling to be liable. Second, the duty to supervise an adult student does not “stop at the schoolhouse door.” For purposes of defining the duty to supervise under W.Va. Code 18A-5-1, the “school” includes adjoining properties.
With regard to the implied immunity issues, Respondents argue that the duty to supervise is discretionary in nature. Furthermore, there was no “clearly established right” that would trigger liability. “For a statutory…right to be clearly established, …the right must be sufficiently clear that every reasonable official would have understood that what he is doing violates that right.” Here, West Virginia law simply provides for a general duty to supervise.
Respondents also insist that no duty of care existed. Where a student is an adult, W.Va. Code 18A-5-1 provides that “the student/teacher relationship shall terminate when the student leaves the school or other place of instruction or activity.” Citing W.Va. Code 18-1-1, Respondents argue that “school” means “the students and teachers assembled in one or more buildings, organized as a unit.” Here, Petitioner left the “school” voluntarily and was injured in one of the adjoining fields.
This case appears on the Rule 20 docket. Therefore, it can be expected that the Supreme Court will issue a new syllabus point addressing one or more of the issues raised in this appeal. Immunity issues in West Virginia are complex by nature. Any insight that can be provided by the Supreme Court would certainly be helpful in dealing with immunity issues as they arise-- regardless of whether they arise in a school case or in another setting.