In K.J. v. NYC BOE., the Second Department recently discussed the high threshold required to prevail on a motion for summary judgment in a negligent supervision case.
The case arose from an incident in December of 2014, when the 14 year old plaintiff was allegedly assaulted by four fellow students in a stairwell leading to the cafeteria of Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. The plaintiff sustained various injuries, including a fractured orbital bone. Plaintiff’s father, Lonnie Jefferson, brought suit on behalf of his son, and individually, against the City of New York, the Board of Education, and the New York City Department of Education (DOE), alleging negligent supervision. The defendants moved for summary judgment, basing their motion, in part, on the plaintiffs’ 50-H hearing testimony and the deposition testimony of a school safety officer. The infant plaintiff testified that while he was in the cafeteria, one of the assailants threw an object at him. When the plaintiff went over to the assailants’ lunch table, he was challenged to a fight. The plaintiff refused to fight and returned to his lunch table without reporting the incident to any teachers. At the end of lunch, the plaintiff left the cafeteria doors and walked into the stairwell to go to his next class. The four assailants cornered the plaintiff punched and kicked him for approximately 25 seconds. Afterwards, the plaintiff found a dean who took him to the nurse’s office. There were no school safety officers, school personnel, or security cameras in the stairwell at the time of the incident.
At his deposition, the school’s safety officer testified that his duties did not include supervising the cafeteria during lunch, which was done by the deans. As a general matter, during the break between class periods, teachers stood in the hallway while the school safety officers patrolled the hallways to make sure the students were headed to class. The officer did not witness the assault, but was radioed by the dean to help to the plaintiff. He also did not know the number or identities of the students who attacked the plaintiff, although he recalled seeing at least one of the assailants in the principal’s office on a prior occasion. The officer testified that he had a supervisor who was in charge of school safety personnel in the building, but the defendants provided no evidence from that supervisor or anyone familiar with the students involved in the assault.
The Supreme Court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment dismissing plaintiff’s complaint, and the plaintiffs appealed. On appeal, the Second Department recited the rule that “schools are under a duty to adequately supervise the students in their charge and they will be held liable for foreseeable injuries proximately related to the absence of adequate supervision.” To determine whether school officials breached their duty to supervise, the first question is whether they had “sufficiently specific knowledge or notice” of the dangerous conduct. Broadly, this requires that the school have actual or constructive notice of prior similar incidents, and injuries that result from the unanticipated or impulsive actions of a student will not result in a finding of negligence.
The Second Department found that defendants failed to provide evidence showing that they lacked notice the assailant’s prior violent behavior. Further, the safety officer’s testimony regarding the disciplinary history of one of the assailants created triable issues of fact as to whether the defendants had specific knowledge of any dangerous propensities. Lastly, they failed demonstrate the general security measures at the school, including the number of school safety officers on duty, their assignments in the vicinity of the cafeteria and stairwell, or the frequency of violent incidents.
Not only did defendants fail to demonstrate their lack of notice, they also failed to eliminate all triable issues to fact as to the second critical point: whether the alleged inadequate security proximately caused the incident. To determine causation, the court must determine whether “the chain of events that followed the negligent act or omission was a normal or foreseeable consequence of the situation created by the school’s negligence.” Here, the defendants failed to show that the incident occurred in such a short time span that even the most intense supervision could have prevented it.
Accordingly, the Second Department held that defendants failed to establish their prima facie entitlement to summary judgment as a matter of law. Interestingly, the Court noted that the trial court should have been able to reach this conclusion regardless of plaintiff’s opposition papers. Likely, this is a result of defendants’ failure to offer testimony or a sworn affidavit from anyone with knowledge of the incident, the assailant’s past behaviors, or the school’s general security policies. Thanks to Evan King for his contribution to this post. Please email Brian Gibbons with any questions.