A former student and his parents filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the Chelmsford public school system and its employees failed to take sufficient steps to protect the student from a sexual assault at a school-sponsored football camp and from subsequent bullying and harassment by teachers and other students at Chelmsford High School (CHS). The case alleges negligence, among other federal and state law violations. The defendants–the Town of Chelmsford, the Chelmsford School Committee (CSC), and various other school officials–moved to dismiss. Last month, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts granted in part and denied in part the motions to dismiss.
The case alleges that for years, CHS embraced a culture that put winning first and encouraged bullying and harassment of student-athletes to make them “tough enough” to win championships. The Town, the CSC, and the former Superintendent allegedly knew about and condoned this “winning” sports culture, in which ordinary rules did not apply to star athletes.
In September 2012, the victim enrolled as a freshman at CHS. He was a special-needs student with an Individualized Education Plan under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In October 2012, during freshman football, three students forced another student to urinate in the victim’s cleats. The family reported the incident to the athletic director, and the three students were suspended for one game.
In August 2013, CHS held its annual football camp at Camp Robindel in New Hampshire. The students stayed in bunkhouses with no regular adult supervision, despite CHS having knowledge of hazing and bullying that took place at past football camps. In the bunkhouse, the victim was hit in the face with powder, and the video recording was posted to social media. He had his food, iPod, and cellphone stolen. He was pelted with milk and repeatedly picked up by his underwear. The lawsuit alleges the hazing culminated in at least three of the victim’s teammates holding him down and raping him with a broomstick.
After the incident was reported to police, the lawsuit alleges the victim was bullied and harassed at Chelmsford High School by his classmates and some staff. The lawsuit alleges that school officials and employees failed to adhere to school policies regarding bullying and in turn created an unsafe and hostile educational environment that forced the victim to transfer schools.
Regarding the negligence claims, the district court explained the threshold question was whether Massachusetts law allows the municipal defendants to be susceptible to the tort claim.
The court first explained that the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act (MTCA) is a limited waiver of sovereign immunity for torts by public employees. Under the MTCA, “public employers” are liable for injuries caused by the negligence of any public employee while acting within the scope of his employment, in the same manner and to the same extent as a private individual under similar circumstances.
The plaintiffs argued that their negligence-based claims against the Town should proceed for two reasons. First, they argued that the “sports culture” custom, as well as the individual defendants’ treatment of the victim, was the “original cause” that emboldened CHS students to bully the victim without fear of discipline. Second, the plaintiffs pointed to the exception to the exclusion in section 10(j)(1), which allows a plaintiff to recover on “any claim based upon explicit and specific assurances of safety or assistance, beyond general representations that investigation or assistance will be or has been undertaken . . . provided that the injury resulted in part from reliance on those assurances.”
The district court concluded that the negligence claims survived dismissal. The victim adequately pleaded that the original cause of the injuries he suffered was an affirmative act by the school that placed him in an unsupervised overnight sports environment with known bullies. Once the municipality was shown to be the “original cause” of the injury, a negligence action could be maintained for a subsequent “act or failure to act to prevent or diminish the harmful consequences of . . . violent or tortious conduct of a third person.” The Town cited a number of decisions in which a court found that a municipality was immune from suit for failing to prevent student-on-student harassment. The district court concluded that all of those cases were distinguishable because none of them involved allegations that the school took affirmative actions to sponsor an off-campus athletic camp supervised by school personnel.
The court held that while the negligent infliction of emotional distress claim survived the MTCA to that same extent, the plaintiffs must plead that they suffered physical harm resulting from the emotional distress. To recover for the tort of negligent infliction of emotional distress, a plaintiff must prove: “(1) negligence; (2) emotional distress; (3) causation; (4) physical harm manifested by objective symptomatology; and (5) that a reasonable person would have suffered emotional distress under the circumstances of the case.” The plaintiffs failed to plead any resulting physical harm manifested by objective symptomatology.
In any event, the district court explained, the victim’s parents would not be able to recover for negligent infliction of emotional distress because they failed the proximity requirement. Massachusetts law does not require that a relative claiming negligent infliction of emotional distress was at the scene of the harm to a family member, but it does require that the shock follow closely on the heels of the accident. Under that standard, the parents failed to satisfy the proximity requirement for bringing a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim.
The district court dismissed all of the claims against the former Superintendent, the athletic director, the former principal, the former Dean, and the former head football coach. The court allowed the First Amendment retaliation, Title IX, and negligence claims against the Town and CSC. The court also allowed claims of First Amendment retaliation, Massachusetts Civil Rights Act violations, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium against various teachers.
The lawsuit is scheduled to proceed to trial.
If you or a loved one was unlawfully harmed by another party’s negligence, you may need the assistance of a sexual assault lawyer to seek compensation. At the Neumann Law Group, our Massachusetts attorneys provide trustworthy legal representation to victims all over the state. Contact us toll-free at 800-525-NEUMANN or use our online form to set up a free consultation.
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