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By: Wayne Melnick
Georgia law is traditionally favorable to educators when state law claims are brought against them in their individual capacities. If the educator can show their actions were taken as part of a discretionary and not ministerial duty, then Georgia Constitutional official immunity applies to protect the educator from liability. It is the rare case where a duty is found to be ministerial and not discretionary – but one recent Georgia appellate opinion found such a duty.
In Boartright v. Copeland, a student alleged that during a high school football game, he was assisting in loading and firing a cannon owned by the school district; and that while compressing the gunpowder with a rod, the cannon discharged shooting the rod into the air and permanently injuring the student’s hand. The student sued the superintendent and individual school board members asserting negligence claims on the theory the defendants were collectively liable in allowing the cannon to be present and used in a school safety zone and at a school function in violation of O.C.G.A. § 16-11-127.1 – a portion of the Georgia Criminal Code making it illegal for a “weapon” to be possessed at such locations/functions. The Code section defines “weapon” in pertinent part as “any weapon designed or intended to propel a missile of any kind” and although it does specifically include pistols and revolvers, it does not specify whether cannons are included. That same Code section also provides an exclusion for weapons “used for classroom work.”
In reversing a grant of official immunity on a motion to dismiss, the Boatright court had little problem determining a cannon to be a “weapon” within the definition provided above. The appellate court also readily disagreed with any argument that the football field qualified as “classroom work.” Although the court was willing to accept that “classroom work” did not always have to be restricted to a classroom, the facts presented showed the activity in question not to “arise from the classroom environment and with the authorization of the classroom teacher.”
Addressing the question of whether the plaintiff had sufficiently pled the alleged breach of a ministerial duty (thus making it a case where official immunity would not apply), the court found that plaintiff had alleged such a duty because the cannon in question could be conceivably within each defendant’s individual “control. As this case was decided at the motion to dismiss stage and not at summary judgment, the court accepted the facts as alleged in the complaint as true. This leaves the door open for the defense to, in the future, present the issues at summary judgment on a more fully developed record.
Finally, despite precedent that provided that individual school officials have official immunity when interpreting the applicability of school policies to situations as they occur, the court was unwilling to provide such immunity to school officials who made a good-faith but erroneous interpretation of a criminal statute when it was believed the application of the statute to the present situation was “absurd.”
Based on recent rulings, it is unsurprising that the Georgia Court of Appeals continues its attempts to chip away at official immunity – especially at the motion to dismiss phase of the proceedings. Currently, there is a petition for certiorari pending before the Georgia Supreme Court to review this ruling. So, we will continue to keep an eye on this case and see the effect it will have on the defense of teachers and administrators in Georgia. For now, however, it is probably best to curtail the firing of any cannons on school property.