Michigan Appeals Court Holds Student Suicide Lawsuit Barred by Governmental Immunity
A plaintiff, suing on behalf of his deceased son’s estate, appealed an order granting summary disposition in favor of the defendant school officials in a case stemming from his son’s suicide. The appeals court affirmed the lower court’s holding for the defendants.In March 2012, the son was a 17-year-old senior at Marysville High School when he was suspected of stealing a teacher’s laptop. Instead of contacting the police and pursuing criminal charges, as advised by the school district’s attorney, the matter was handled as a school discipline issue.
The son was brought to the front office and was informed by the school principal and the assistant principal that he was a suspect in the theft of the laptop computer. Although he initially denied taking the computer, he eventually admitted that he took it and that it was at his house.
After his admission, a call was placed to his father, the personal representative in this case. The son told his father where the laptop computer was located in his bedroom, and the father brought the laptop to the school. The laptop was examined, and it was determined that the son had “reimaged” it with different software.
There was also a discussion about the possibility that the son may have been involved in other thefts at the school involving computer equipment and cell phones, which he denied. The assistant principal escorted the son to his car, at which time he became upset. He then returned to his office and told the father that the son was upset and to keep an eye on him. The son drove home, and, within a short time, his father arrived home as well.
The son was home with his family until the afternoon, when he left his house without anyone’s knowledge. The father soon realized that the son was not home. At about 5:00 p.m., the police were dispatched to the scene of a fatal accident on I-69. He had driven his vehicle into a concrete pillar, causing the car to catch fire. He died of traumatic injuries, and his death was ruled a suicide.
Three years later, the father filed suit on behalf of the son’s estate. In Count I, a negligence claim, he alleged that the defendants breached their duties to the son by: (a) interrogating him in a closed room without his parents or counsel; (b) misrepresenting facts to him during their interrogation; (c) intimidating him; (d) lying to him about the videotape showing him in possession of the laptop; (e) threatening him about a felony conviction and his future college plans; (f) suspending him for the remainder of the school year; and (g) failing to follow their suicide prevention policies although he was suicidal. In Count II, an intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress claim, the plaintiff alleged that because of the defendants’ actions set forth above, the son was subjected to severe emotional distress that caused him to commit suicide.
The defendants filed a motion for summary disposition pursuant to MCR 2.116(C). They noted that this was the second lawsuit filed by the plaintiff arising out of the son’s suspension from school for stealing a teacher’s laptop. The first case was filed in the federal district court and alleged procedural and substantive due process violations under 42 USC § 1983. That case was dismissed on the defendants’ motion for summary judgment after the district court held that the son received the procedural due process to which he was entitled and that his substantive due process rights were not violated. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.
In their motion for summary disposition of the claims brought in this case, the defendants argued that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by res judicata and collateral estoppel, considering the dismissal of the federal case. The defendants further argued that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by governmental immunity. In particular, the claims against the school district were barred because the gross negligence exception only applies to individuals rather than governmental agencies, and governmental entities are absolutely immune from intentional tort claims.
Subsequently, the trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary disposition, holding that governmental immunity barred the plaintiff’s claims. On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court erred in concluding that governmental immunity barred his intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress claim because reasonable minds could find that the defendants’ conduct was “extreme and outrageous.”
Governmental employees, like the acting superintendent, high school principal, and assistant principal in this case, are immune from intentional tort liability if the challenged actions were (1) undertaken during the course of employment and within the scope of authority, (2) undertaken in good faith or without malice, and (3) discretionary in nature, rather than ministerial.
In this case, the appeals court explained, it was undisputed that the actions by the three individual defendants related to the son’s suspension were undertaken in the course of their employment with Marysville Public Schools, that the disciplinary actions were within the scope of their authority, and that such actions were discretionary in nature. The plaintiff claimed, however, that the actions were not undertaken in good faith or without malice. Instead, the plaintiff argued that the defendants’ actions were extreme and outrageous and gave rise to a claim for intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress, which was not barred by governmental immunity.
The plaintiff’s allegations of “extreme and outrageous” conduct included that the defendants questioned the son in a closed room without his parents present, lied to the son about the availability of the videotape showing him leaving the teacher’s classroom within seconds of the laptop being disconnected from the school network, intimidated the son by their positions of authority and with their questioning about the stolen laptop, told the son that they would notify the police about other thefts at the school, told the son that he could be convicted of a felony with regard to other property stolen at the school if he was involved, threatened to notify the colleges that he was interested in attending about the events that had occurred, told the son that he was definitely suspended for the remainder of the school year, and told him that he could not participate in any extracurricular activities for the remainder of the year. The appeals court held that reasonable minds could not conclude that any of these alleged actions constituted “extreme and outrageous” conduct that would subject the defendants to liability on this claim.
The plaintiff also argued that the trial court erred in concluding that governmental immunity barred his negligence claim because the individual defendants’ actions were grossly negligent and were the proximate cause of the son’s death. The trial court disagreed.
The plaintiff claimed the defendants were grossly negligent because they failed to follow their suicide prevention policies, considering the danger of suicide. However, there was no evidence that the son was, in fact, suicidal while he was on school property. Even the father, who was at the school with him, saw no signs that he was extremely upset or was considering suicide, or the father clearly would not have allowed him to drive home alone. Furthermore, he did not leave the school in his vehicle and immediately commit suicide; instead, he was home with his family for several hours before he committed suicide.
The appeals court concluded that even if any of the defendants’ actions constituted gross negligence, the defendants were still entitled to governmental immunity with regard to the plaintiff’s negligence claim because the defendants’ actions were not the proximate cause of the son’s death. The one most immediate and direct cause of his death was not the defendants’ conduct that occurred hours earlier in the day; instead, it was his own conduct (intentionally driving his car into a concrete pillar) that caused him to sustain fatal injuries.
Accordingly, the trial court properly concluded that the plaintiff’s negligence claim against the individual defendants was barred by governmental immunity.
The wrongful death attorneys at the Neumann Law Group represent families throughout Michigan from offices in Traverse City and Grand Rapids. Call us at (231) 463-0122 or at (616) 717-5666 for a free consultation.
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