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LIABILITY OF TEACHERS UNDER TORT LAW

INTRODUCTION

People often say that education is a key to opportunity and the teachers imparting the education are considered no less than Gods. Teachers were and still are regarded as Gurus, but what takes place if these same Gurus commit or are accused of committing a civil wrong? A tort is a civil wrong for which the courts hold a person legally responsible. An act or omission that harms another person is referred to as a tort. Torts can shift the burden of loss from the injured party to the party who is at fault or better suited to bear the burden of the loss.[1] A person who seeks compensation under tort law typically demands monetary compensation.

Most teaching personnel are not well acquainted with the topic of tort liability. Legal concepts and issues in education are rarely covered as an area of study in teacher training curricula.  Nevertheless, whether teachers and administrators are aware of it, the topic of tort liability surrounds all their daily actions. For instance, a teacher might be held liable for the tort of mental distress if they act extremely or outrageously that purposefully upsets a student deeply. The kid may experience severe emotional trauma when a teacher openly and repeatedly humiliates them in front of their batchmates, or if a teacher negligently uses some force against a student and it hurts the kid, the teacher may be held liable for battery or assault. These everyday incidents might result in the teacher being held liable for a civil wrong.

TORTIOUS CONCEPTS APPLICABLE IN SUCH CASES

Let us discuss the various concepts of tort law which can be applied in this case.

Assault and Battery: Both of these are linked but separate crimes. Assault is an attempt to engage in battery or action that gives rise to a reasonable fear of potential battery, whereas battery is the use of physical force against someone without consent.[2]  Some of the court cases have involved assault and battery as evidence of tortious liability committed by the teacher, typically in the form of disciplinary action imposed by the classroom teacher. In such cases, the authority granted to the teacher through the rules and regulations issued by the college or school administrations is crucial. These rules outline the requirements that the teacher must follow in his or her position, and a court may subsequently decide if the instructor went beyond the bounds of their authority.[3] The older norm, which gives the instructor unlimited discretion over the necessity of punishment and how it is to be delivered, was established in the case of State v. Pendergrass (1837).[4] The more recent or modern norm was laid down in Sheehan v. Sturges (1885), which takes away the teacher’s complete discretion in determining the necessity of the discipline and leaves the appropriateness and nature of the punishment to be determined by facts. In State v. Lutz (1953), the Connecticut Supreme Court established clear rules regarding assault and battery; having been found guilty of assault and battery after paddling a student, the defendant, a teacher filed an appeal, and the appeals court ruled that there must be evidence of malice, express or implied, as well as the production or threat of enduring or permanent harm before a teacher can be held accountable for mere, excessive or immoderate punishment.

Negligence: Another popular tort law that can create a tortious liability against the teachers is the tort of Negligence. Any form of negligence occurs when someone fails to exercise reasonable care, resulting in harm or injury to another person.[5] Teachers must provide adequate supervision to students under their care. If they fail to exercise reasonable care in supervising students, due to which a student suffers harm or injury, the teacher can be held liable for Negligence. In such cases, if it is established that in a particular situation if the teacher had the duty of care toward the student, and it is proved that the teacher had committed a breach of that duty, due to which the student suffered harm or damages, then the teacher may be held liable for negligence. The California Supreme Court ruled in Damgaard v. Oakland High School District (1931)[6] that failing to exercise reasonable care and precautionary measures is negligence in its purest form. During these incidents, it is essential to establish that the teacher owed a duty of care to the student in those circumstances and to assess the plaintiff’s capacity to use reasonable care on his behalf. Contributory negligence might be used to lessen the liability of the teacher in some cases if it is established that the defendant (student) could provide reasonable care for himself, depending upon the pupil’s intellect, experience, and age. Usually, the courts don’t find students under 14 years old liable for contributory negligence.[7] Assumption of risk is another legal defence in tort liability claims based on negligence. Particularly relevant in cases involving sports is this defence. In these situations, the court will consider the injured party’s prior knowledge of the inherent risks of the activity in which he willingly engages. This idea is founded on the idea that no harm can come to someone who consents or volenti nonfit injuria. Some case laws which involve negligence by the teachers are K.Veeraraghavan vs The Secretary To Government (2014)[8], and M.S. Grewal & Anr vs Deep Chand Sood & Ors (2001)[9]; both the cases involved similar facts wherein the court laid down that the teachers are liable to pay damages in case of the harm suffered by students, where the teacher had a duty of care.

Tort of Mental Distress: When a teacher engages in outrageous and extreme conduct with a student which results in the student experiencing emotional distress, then the teacher may be held liable for the tort of mental distress depending upon the facts of the case, and the state of the plaintiff and the defendants. Even when there is little risk of physical injury, certain behaviours can be extremely offensive and mentally hurtful to other people. The courts have established strict requirements for proving a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress since the notion of offensive behaviour is subjective by its very nature. The plaintiff must establish, to prevail, that the defendant indulged in extreme and outrageous behaviour that caused another person great emotional distress intentionally or negligently.[10] For instance, if a teacher publicly humiliates a student who has a learning disability (engaging in outrageous behaviour), by indulging in a situation where he/she publicly humiliates the student on multiple occasions by continuously mocking him/her about his/her grades. In such cases, the court will assess the situation thoroughly and since the relationship between the plaintiff and defendant is that of a teacher-student, the court may hold the conduct to be outrageous. Lastly, the court would require the plaintiff to show that he suffered continuous emotional distress (experiencing a brief period of unhappiness or humiliation won’t be sufficient). Therefore, the plaintiff has a heavy burden of proof to establish serious and long-lasting psychological harm. In the above scenario, the student (plaintiff) has the burden of proof to show that he/she suffered continuous emotional distress as a result of the constant humiliation thrown by the teacher (defendant). If the student satisfies all the conditions, then the teacher can be held liable for the tort of mental distress.

CONCLUSION

The tortious liability of teachers has important ramifications for the educational system. Even if they are regarded as mentors, teachers are nevertheless liable for any civil wrongs done to children. These legal concepts clarify the possible repercussions for teachers who commit these wrongs. It is imperative that educators are conscious of their legal obligations and use reasonable caution while interacting with students. The best way to steer clear of circumstances that could result in tortious liability is by adequate supervision, strict punishment, and polite behavior. In the end, it is crucial to strike a balance between teachers’ rights and obligations and kids’ well-being. By promoting accountability, we can foster a culture of responsibility and protect the interests of all the parties involved.  

Author(s) Name: Devyanshi Sarikwal (Government Law College, Mumbai)

Reference(s):

[1] ‘Tort’ (Cornell) <www.law.cornell.edu/wex/tort > accessed 25 June 2023

[2] ‘Assault and battery’ (Britannica) <www.britannica.com/topic/assault-and-battery > accessed 26 June 2023

[3] Stephen Ripps, ‘The Tort Liability of the Classroom Teacher’ (2015) Akron Law Review                                                                            <https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/232682023.pdf> accessed 26 June 2023

[4] State v Rachel Pendergrass (1837) 19 N.C. 365

[5] ‘Negligence’ (Cornell) <www.law.cornell.edu/wex/negligence > accessed 26 June 2023

[6] Damgaard v Oakland High School Dist.’ (1931) 212 Cal. 316

[7] Kenneth D. Kastle, ‘Tort Liability of Educational Personnel’ (1975) 54 (1) <www.jstor.org/stable/42925810 > accessed 26 June 2023.

[8] K.Veeraraghavan v  The Secretary To Government (2014) Writ Petition No. 35052/2012

[9] M.S. Grewal & Anr v Deep Chand Sood & Ors (2001) Appeal (Civil) No. 9738/1996

[10] ‘Elements of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress’                                                                                            (Biotech Law) <https://biotech.law.lsu.edu/courses/tortsf01/iiem.htm> accessed 27 June 2023