Student Drowns But School Found Not Responsible; Slade v. Board of School Directors

The estate of the decedent, Kamonie Slade, and his parents, brought a lawsuit against the administrators of the public school he was attending at the time of his death from drowning in a class outing. The case was brought under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court judge granted summary judgment for the defendants, the Board of School Directors, which also relinquished jurisdiction over the plaintiff’s supplemental state court tort claim and dismissed the lawsuit.

The appeal brought to the Seventh Circuit in Chicago challenged the dismissal of the federal case. In addition to the board of school directors, the plaintiffs named the principal and assistant principal of the school. The court pointed out that the Wisconsin law caps the tort liability of a public employee at $50,000 per victim. That would make the maximum recovery under state law for wrongful death and loss of consortium $150,000, which the court of appeals pointed out was meager under the circumstances.

This case arises out of a planned field trip to a lake for graduating 7th graders on the last day of their school year. The public school district forbids recreational swimming on field trips unless a lifeguard is present. There was no lifeguard present when Kamonie drowned. There were 92 children participating in the outing.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in granting the motion for summary judgment brought by the defendants in the federal court, stated that depriving a person of life in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment is not available for failing to prevent a person from dying. There would be a violation to the Fourteenth Amendment if the death was caused by the reckless act of an employee of the state acting within his or her employment. Paine v. Cason, 678 F.3d 500, 509-11 (7th Cir. 2012).

The cases generally stand for the proposition that “recklessness” means knowledge of a serious risk to another person, coupled with failure to avert the risk that could easily have been averted. This is the criminal meaning of recklessness, whereas in civil cases at common law, it is enough that the risk, besides being serious and eminently avoidable, is obvious; it need not be known to the defendant. Doe v. St. Francis School District, 694 F.3d 869, 872 (7th Cir. 2012).

This court of appeals considered all of the facts. It found that although the defendants may have been negligent in increasing the risk to Kamonie, but at the same time found that negligence is not enticement or delivered indifference, or blindness to obvious dangers. Negligence is not a basis for liability in a due process case.

After a lengthy discussion about other cases including U.S. Supreme Court cases, the Seventh Circuit devised a simple formula. It said that the due process clause is violated by a government employee acting within the scope of his or her employment when he or she commits a reckless act that by gratuitously endangering a person results in an injury to that person. Since the facts did not support a claim that Kamonie was placed deliberately in danger by the defendants, they could not be liable under due process.

The defendants did take some steps to try to ensure the children’s safety. They sent permission slips home; the slips refer to “playing in the water”; there were teacher-chaperones accompanying, the school employees. Although the defendants may have been negligent, they were not reckless. Accordingly, the court of appeals affirmed the dismissal of the federal case.

Ronald Slade, et al. v. Board of School Directors of the City of Milwaukee, et al., No. 12-2425 (7th Cir. 2012).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling injury cases and wrongful death matters for individuals and families for more than 37 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Park Ridge, Oak Park, Cicero, Waukegan, Morton Grove, Justice, Burbank, Clarendon Hills, Chicago (Austin), Chicago (Albany Park), Itasca, Palatine and Bolingbrook, Ill.

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