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California Supreme Court: School districts may be vicariously liable for the negligent hiring, supervision and retention of employee who harms student

C.A., a Minor v. William S. Hart Union High School District S188982

On March 8, 2012, a unanimous California Supreme Court ruled that under Government Code Section 815.2, a school district may be held vicariously liable for the negligent hiring, retention, and supervision of an employee who harms a student, even if the employee’s conduct is deemed outside the scope of employment.

Through a guardian ad litem, plaintiff “C.A.” sued William S. Hart Union High School District (“District”) alleging he was sexually harassed and abused by Roselyn Hubbell, the head guidance counselor (“Hubbell”). Hubbell used her position and the pretext of wanting to help C.A. to spend time with him on and off school premises. Exploiting her position of authority and trust, Hubbell engaged in sexual activity with the minor.

Plaintiff alleged that District personnel knew or should have known of Hubbell’s propensity and disposition to engage in sexual abuse of minors. In the cause of action for negligent supervision, Plaintiff claimed the District failed to provide reasonable supervision over Hubbell and failed to use reasonable care to investigate her.

The District challenged the suit, arguing there was no state law that authorized liability against a school district for negligent supervision, hiring or retention. The trial court agreed with the District and threw the case out. The Court of Appeal also agreed, specifically rejecting the claim on vicarious liability for conduct clearly outside the scope of employment.

In reversing the Court of Appeal and remanding the matter for further proceeding, the California Supreme Court did not rule on whether the District’s supervisory personnel were actually negligent. However, it articulated a standard of care that appears to exceed mere negligence. The Court held that school personnel have a duty to protect students from harm, which includes an obligation to exercise ordinary care in hiring, training, supervising and discharging school personnel. The Court went as far as to hold that there is a special relationship between the District and its students “analogous in many ways to the relationship between parents and their children” (citing Hoff v. Vacaville Unified School Dist., (1998) 19 Cal.4th 925, 935).

Practice Advisor: School districts that do not already have them should adopt procedures for investigating allegations of sexual harassment and abuse, and ensure that those procedures are followed consistently and verifiably. This ruling holding school districts vicariously liable for negligent hiring and supervision may apply to other public entities. We expect further appellate decisions to clarify the scope and application.