De’Jon Pierce was a junior at Hearne High School when he died in March, 2012.  The student crashed an ATV (All-Terrain Vehicle) into a tree.  What did this have to do with the school?  Well, the ATV was owned by the school’s Ag Teacher, and the student was riding the vehicle with his teacher’s permission. In fact, the teacher had taken De’Jon and some other students out of class to work on his own farm.  The suit alleged that this was done regularly, and with the principal’s permission. This work was considered part of the students’ coursework.

On the date of his death, De’Jon drove the ATV to his teacher’s father’s ranch about a mile away to deliver a tool.  Another student rode with him on the ATV. On the way back they crashed into the tree.  The other student survived. De’Jon did not.

I’ll bet if you ran that situation by most educators in Texas, they would guess that somebody would be held legally liable for the student’s death. Maybe the school district. Maybe the teacher.  Maybe the principal.  But in fact, the 5th Circuit held that neither the school, nor the principal, nor the teacher was legally responsible for this tragic accident.

The District
The school district asserted sovereign immunity. School districts in Texas are immune from liability for personal injuries, including death, unless the injury arose from the negligent use or operation of a motor vehicle by a school officer or employee acting within the scope of employment.  Here, the ATV was not operated or controlled by a school employee.   The court thus concluded that “Hearne ISD is immune from tort liability under the Texas Tort Claims Act.”

The Teacher
The parents argued that the teacher removed the boy from school without their permission, instructed him to ride double on an ATV despite not having a drivers’ license, did not properly instruct him on how to operate the ATV, did not provide safety gear, and did not maintain the ATV properly.  The court pointed out that the teacher “may have been negligent.” But that was simply not enough to impose liability under federal law, which was the basis for the suit against the teacher.  As a general rule, educators are liable under federal law for wrongful acts performed intentionally.  The court pointed out that “there is nothing to suggest that [the teacher] intended to harm De’Jon at all or even that he foresaw harm and willfully disregarded it.”  This was a tragic accident, not a deliberate act.

The Principal
The court applied much the same analysis to the claim against the principal. The claim was that the principal was negligent in supervising the teacher, and in allowing him to take kids out of school to work on his farm without parent permission.  Negligent?  Maybe. But nowhere close to deliberate indifference to a known right that could lead to liability under federal law.

The court did not conclude that anyone was negligent here, or exercised poor judgment.   It just held that negligence and/or poor judgment would not have been enough to impose liability.  Suppose, though, that the superintendent concluded that the teacher and/or principal made some serious errors in judgment here. Could the superintendent take corrective action?  Of course.  When a case goes to court, it is all about the standards for legal liability.  Standards of good judgment, however, can, and should, be imposed by school administrators.

The case is Pierce v. Hearne ISD, decided by the 5th Circuit on January 7, 2015.  We found it at 2015 WL 81995.