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Public Entity May Be Vicariously Liable for Negligent Hiring, Retention and Supervision of Worker

  • March 21, 2012

Reversing dismissal of a complaint against a California school district, the California Supreme Court has held that a public school district could be held vicariously liable for the negligence of supervisory or administrative personnel who allegedly knew or should have known of a school guidance counselor’s propensity toward sexual molestation, but hired, retained and inadequately supervised her.  C.A. v. William Hart Union High Sch. Dist., No. S188982 (Cal. Mar. 8, 2012).


While attending a public high school operated by the William S. Hart Union High School District, a student (“C.A.”) claimed the head guidance counselor repeatedly sexually molested and harassed him.  C.A. sued the school district and others for vicarious liability and for negligent supervision, negligent hiring and retention, and negligent failure to warn, train or educate.  C.A. alleged the district knew the guidance counselor had engaged in unlawful sexually-related conduct with minors in the past and continued to engage in such conduct, but it failed to take reasonable steps to prevent her from doing so.

The school district asked the trial court to dismiss C.A.’s claims because, it argued, there was no statutory authority for holding a public entity liable for negligent supervision, hiring or retention of its employees.  The trial court agreed and dismissed the complaint without leave to amend.  C.A. appealed, and the Court of Appeal affirmed.  The California Supreme Court granted C.A.’s petition for review.

Applicable Law

Section 815.2 of the California Government Code states that a “public entity is liable for injury proximately caused by an act or omission of an employee … within the scope of his employment if the act or omission would, apart from this section, have given rise to a cause of action against that employee or his personal representative.”  Thus, generally, “an employee of a public entity is liable for his torts to the same extent as a private person … and the public entity is vicariously liable for any injury which its employee causes … to the same extent as a private employer.”  Societa per Azioni de Navigazione Italia v. City of L.A., 31 Cal. 3d 446, 463 (Cal. 1982).

Claims Found Viable

The school district argued that its employees owed C.A. no legal duty to protect C.A. against abuse by another employee.  C.A. argued the special relationship between public school personnel and students imposed on the district’s administrative and supervisory employees a duty of reasonable care to protect a student from foreseeable dangers, including those from other school employees.  The Supreme Court agreed with C.A.

The Supreme Court first noted that California law imposes on school authorities a duty to “supervise at all times the conduct of students on the school grounds and to enforce such rules and regulations as are necessary for their protection.”  The Court further observed that a total lack of supervision or ineffective supervision could constitute a lack of ordinary care on the part of those responsible for student supervision. Therefore, under Section 815.2, a school district could be held vicariously liable for injuries proximately caused by such negligence.

The Court then found that a school district and its employees have a “special relationship” with the district’s students, arising out of “the mandatory character of school attendance and the comprehensive control over students exercised by school personnel.”  Therefore, the duty of care owed by school personnel includes the duty to use reasonable measures to protect students from foreseeable injury at the hands of third parties, including injury to a student resulting from a teacher’s sexual assault.

The school district maintained that the “special relationship” could not be extended to school principals and other administrators who oversee the overall functioning of the school.  The Court rejected this argument, stating, “School principals and other supervisory employees, to the extent their duties include overseeing the educational environment and the performance of teachers and counselors, also have the responsibility of taking reasonable measures to guard pupils against harassment and abuse from foreseeable sources, including any teachers or counselors they know or have reason to know are prone to such abuse.”

The Court then noted that the “scope and effect” of its decision was “limited by requirements of causation and duty, elements of liability that must be established in every tort action.”  It observed that proving causation might present a “significant obstacle” where the individual did not have final authority over the hiring or firing of the alleged abuser.  Thus, an employee who did not make the hiring or retention decision and whose recommendations were not likely to be highly influential to the decision-maker would not face the potential for individual liability.

With respect to duty, the Court noted that the liability of the school district’s administrators arose from the special relationship with C.A.  Without such a relationship, the Court held, there is no individual liability to third parties for negligent hiring, retention or supervision of a fellow employee, and hence no vicarious liability.

The Court emphasized that a district’s liability must be based on evidence of negligent hiring, supervision or retention, not on assumptions or speculation.  Even when negligence by an administrator or supervisor is established, the greater share of fault will ordinarily lie with the individual who intentionally abused or harassed the student than with any other party, and that fact should be reflected in any allocation of comparative fault, the Court instructed.

Accordingly, within these limits, the Court concluded that a school district could be held vicariously liable for the negligence of administrators or supervisors in hiring, supervising and retaining a school employee who allegedly sexually abused a student.

©2012 Jackson Lewis P.C. This material is provided for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice nor does it create a client-lawyer relationship between Jackson Lewis and any recipient. Recipients should consult with counsel before taking any actions based on the information contained within this material. This material may be considered attorney advertising in some jurisdictions. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.

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