Tennessee Court Holds that Summary Judgment in Favor of School District Was Premature in Student-on-Student Sexual Assault Case – Richardson v. Trenton Special School District

Tennessee law requires that the plaintiff in a negligence case prove that the defendant owed a duty of care, that the defendant breached the duty of care, that the plaintiff suffered an injury or loss, and that the defendant’s breach of duty was both the cause in fact and the proximate or legal cause of the plaintiff’s injury or loss.

The question of whether the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff has traditionally been a question of law, meaning that it is up to the court – rather than the jury – to determine whether a duty exists under the particular facts presented in a case. However, the question of whether the risk of a certain harm was foreseeable can be a question of fact.

The Facts of the Case

In the case of Richardson v. Trenton Special School District, the plaintiffs were the parents of a six-year-old child who was a student at an elementary school in the defendant school district. In their complaint, the parents alleged that the child was sexually assaulted by another student some five times during his kindergarten year.

The trial court dismissed the parents’ suit, holding that the school district was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law because the assault was not foreseeable. The parents appealed.

Holding of the Court of Appeals of Tennessee

Upon review, the appellate court reversed the trial court’s order of summary judgment in the school district’s favor. First, the court reiterated the law with regard to the determination of whether a duty was owed in particular circumstances. First, the court is to establish whether the risk was foreseeable, and, if it was, the court must then apply a balancing test based upon the principles of fairness to decide whether the risk was reasonable or unreasonable.

The court rejected the school district’s argument that, under prior case law, any sexual assault between children was unforeseeable as a matter of law, noting that the defendant had a policy in place to the effect that children were never to be out of sight and were to be monitored in the halls and bathrooms. The court then noted that the record was unclear on when and why the policy was put into place (in particular, whether it was precipitated by a previous sexual assault between students).

The court then concluded that the existence of the policy created at least a question of fact regarding whether the school district anticipated a student-on-student sexual assault and that the policy itself could have a bearing on the question of whether the assaults at issue were foreseeable. Since the question of whether the assaults on the plaintiff’s child were foreseeable, based upon the school district’s supervision policy, was a question that would have to be determined at trial, the court ruled that the trial court’s order granting summary judgment to the school district was premature.

If Your Child Has Been Injured Due to Negligence

Cases involving injuries to children require special attention. The experienced Knoxville personal injury attorney at the Hartsoe Law Firm, P.C., is well-versed on Tennessee negligence law, both as it applies to children and as it applies to adults. For a free consultation on your case, call us for an appointment at (865) 524-5657. We represent injured people and families who have lost loved ones to wrongful death in and around Knoxville, including in Blount County, Anderson County, and Roane County.

Related Blog Posts:

Knoxville Court Rules Father is Not Barred From Bringing Tort Claim on Behalf of His Injured Child

Federal Court in Tennessee Refuses to Order Minor Child with Seizures to Travel to Florida for IME – Vandergriff v. Red Robin International, Inc.

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