Tennessee Court Finds No Negligence When School Could Not Foresee Student’s Sexual Assault

The question of foreseeability in negligence claims does not arise only when dealing with dangerous conditions or known defects. An individual’s propensity to commit certain acts of violence may also raise questions of foreseeability. Thus, when an entity has control over an individual, like a school or employer, and has reason to know that that individual may have committed bad acts in the past, but nothing is done to stop the individual, harm may be foreseeable, and a duty may be created. A recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals considered whether a school had a duty to protect a student from sexual assault by another student because the possibility of sexual assault was foreseeable.

K.G.R. was a student at Union City Middle School. In 2012, he was sexually assaulted by a special education student, Q.B., who was one of his classmates. Another student observed them both in a bathroom stall together and reported it to a teacher. The teacher took the boys to the principal’s office and called their parents. When K.G.R.’s parents arrived, he told them and the teachers that Q.B. had assaulted him. Several weeks prior to the assault, K.G.R.’s parents had written Union City to tell them that their son was being bullied at school and that he was being picked on. However, K.G.R. acknowledged that he had never previously been assaulted by another student. K.G.R.’s parents filed a lawsuit for negligence several months later, arguing that Union City had breached its duty to protect K.G.R. from harm. Union City moved for summary judgment, arguing that it did not owe a duty to K.G.R. because it could not have known that Q.B. would assault him. The trial court denied the motion, and Union City appealed.

Central to the question of duty under Tennessee law is a determination of whether the risk at issue was foreseeable. In considering whether a risk was foreseeable, courts must look at whether there were prior similar incidents or circumstances that would have put an individual on notice of a likelihood of harm. In Tennessee, the general principle is that student misconduct is not to be expected by schools unless there is proof of prior misconduct. Moreover, Tennessee courts have also held that one form of misconduct by a student does not necessarily alert schools to the likelihood of other types of conduct. Thus, just because students are roughhousing on a playground does not mean that there is a greater risk that they may sexually assault each other.

In this case, the Tennessee Court of Appeals noted that K.G.R.’s assault was the first time that an assault had happened at the school, and it was the first incident of misconduct for Q.B. There was nothing in either student’s record that indicated that they needed to be supervised in the bathroom or that there would be a propensity to engage in sexual abuse. Since there was no indication of prior sexual misconduct, the appellate court held that the trial court was wrong to deny Union City’s motion for summary judgment because, without foreseeability, it did not have a duty to protect K.G.R. from this harm. The court noted that although K.G.R.’s mother had written a note to the school about bullying that K.G.R. was experiencing, this was an entirely different type of harm, and the note did not alert the school to the possibility of sexual assault. Accordingly, the court reversed the lower court’s determination.

This case is an important reminder that schools and other authorities can rarely be held liable for harm that they could not have anticipated would occur. While schools must protect their students from known risks, they do not have a duty to prevent any possible type of harm from occurring. This would be impossible. Thus, when bringing a claim for negligence, it is imperative to evaluate whether the harm that led to the injury is one that the defendant reasonably should have anticipated. Experienced Tennessee personal injury attorney Eric Beasley can help you evaluate whether the injury you experienced was foreseeable, such that another person violated their duty of care to you. For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Court Emphasizes That Dangerous Conditions Must Actually Cause Harm, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, February 3, 2017.

Tennessee Courts Consider When a Party Can Be Held Liable for an Agent’s Negligence, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 12, 2016.

Sixth Circuit Denies Negligence Claim For Lack of Physical Injury, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, September 21, 2016.