Big verdict vs. Keller ISD tossed out

In October, 2013, a jury awarded the Rideau family $1,000,000 in damages.  Keller ISD was ordered to pay that amount to compensate for injuries to a student with a disability and his parents.  But since that time, that big jury award has been whittled down, and now it has been wiped off the books altogether.

The case has a complicated procedural history, but the main point for today is that the court concluded that the evidence the jury heard was not sufficient for them to reach the verdict that they reached.  Some of you may be wondering: can a judge do that?  Can a judge set aside a jury verdict because the judge thinks the evidence was lacking, even though the jury does not?  The answer is yes. Judges can do that, and in this case, the judge did that.

The school district’s argument was that the evidence simply did not show “deliberate indifference.” This is a case in which a teacher was accused of mistreatment of a student with a disability.  The court did not dispute the fact that the teacher mistreated the student. But that fact is not enough to impose liability on the school district. The jury has to have evidence to show that the school knew what was happening and responded with “deliberate indifference.”  After recounting how the various administrators responded to the information they received, the court concluded that “the jury did not have a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find that Keller was deliberately indifferent.”

“Deliberate indifference” is very hard to prove.   As the court’s opinion in this case points out, you can be “inept” and yet not be “deliberately indifferent.”  Despite that reality, administrators should remember that documentation of what you knew, when you knew it, and what you did about it is the key to showing that you were neither “inept” nor “deliberately indifferent.”

While the standard for avoiding legal liability is low (avoiding “deliberate indifference”) the standard for educator accountability should be high.  If a teacher mistreats a student, the first thing for the school administration to do is to hold the teacher accountable through appropriate consequences.  Let the lawyers worry about the legal standards for liability if it should come to that. Focus on student safety and teacher professionalism…and set a high bar for that.

The case is Plainscapital Bank v. Keller ISD, decided by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas on November 29, 2016.  We found it at 116 LRP 49954.


 File this one under: LIABILITY

Tomorrow: have you ever wondered about the distinction between “counseling” and “special ed counseling”?