School District Can Be Vicariously Liable In Cases of Employee-Student Sexual Assault

by: Carl L. Fessenden and Derek J. Haynes

The California Supreme Court recently issued its decision in C.A. v. William S. Hart Union High School District, holding that school districts can be vicariously liable for negligent hiring, supervision, and training in cases involving employee-student sexual assaults.

The case arose out of allegations by a high school student that his guidance counselor sexually harassed and assaulted him numerous times over an eight month period.  The lawsuit was filed against the guidance counselor and the school district, claiming that the student’s injuries were caused by both the counselor’s sexual misconduct and the failure of the school district administrators to properly hire, supervise and train the guidance counselor.

Public entity liability can be direct or vicarious. Pursuant to Government Code §815, public entities are immune from direct liability unless authorized by statute. There is no statute authorizing direct liability against public entities for sexual assaults by their employees. Therefore, traditionally, direct liability claims like those asserted against the school district in C.A. v. William S. Hart Union High School District would fail. Vicarious liability exists when one of the public entity’s employees is legally responsible for harm he or she caused while that employee was acting in the course and scope of employment. Gov. Code § 815.2(a).  Historically, courts have found that sexual assaults fall outside the course and scope of employment. Therefore, vicarious liability claims against a school district premised on sexual assault by an employee have failed.  The Supreme Court’s recent ruling provides plaintiffs a way to get around those limitations.

In C.A. v. William S. Hart, the school district filed a demurrer, arguing that Plaintiff’s direct liability claim failed because there is no statute authorizing direct liability for negligent hiring, supervision or training as required under Government Code §815. To the extent Plaintiff’s claim was one for vicarious liability, the school district argued there was no underlying liability on the part of its administrators because the district itself, not its individual administrators, was responsible for hiring, training and supervising its personnel. The trial court sustained the demurrer and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

On March 8, 2012, the California Supreme Court overturned that decision, based largely on the special relationship between school districts and their students. The Court explained that the “special relationship” between school districts and their students imposes a duty on school district administrators, themselves, to protect students from foreseeable harm. That includes harm at the hands of other employees that could have been avoided had the administrators properly trained or supervised those employees. If the administrators do not satisfy that duty, the school district can be held vicariously liable for negligent hiring, supervision and training under Government Code §815.2.

As a result of this holding, plaintiffs can now avoid dismissal by simply alleging that a school district administrator failed to properly hire, supervise, or train the person who committed the act of sexual assault.

The Court attempted to minimize the significance of its decision by pointing to the fact that plaintiffs must still prove that the negligent hiring, training or supervision caused the injuries.  The Court suggested that would be hard to prove in most cases. However, that ignores the true implications of this decision. Before this decision, school districts could seek dismissal of these lawsuits at the outset of the litigation by filing a demurrer. Plaintiffs can now overcome that hurdle, thereby forcing the districts to incur the substantial costs of litigation until school districts can raise the issue of causation on a motion for summary judgment or at trial.