Can parents sue a school district for wrongful death, when their theory of liability is that the district owed their child a duty to supervise her or her killers? The answer here – no.
In Stoddart v. Pocatello School District, the Idaho Supreme Court (Justice Horton writing the decision) affirms the district court’s decision and dismisses the school district from the case, leaving no likely ground for recovery by Cassie Jo Stoddart’s family. Still, the decision is predictable. Generally speaking, a case founded on negligence requires proof of a duty owed to the victims; a breach of that duty; proximate cause (the breach must have been a substantial step in bringing about the harm), and resulting damages. The Court acknowledged a duty on the part of the district to take reasonable steps to protect their students from foreseeable harms faced by their students, but found that the plaintiffs had failed to prove that the harm here was foreseeable. There is much more here and the decision is very instructive on the law in Idaho (and most other states) as it relates to the duty to protect, so take a quick. There is also mention of an "alternate" basis for the decision – that the duty to protect students that would be imposed on school districts would be enormous were they to rule otherwise. Justice Horton points out that the decision does not change the duty to protect students when there is specific information establishing a child may be a target for violence. Here, there was not sufficient evidence based on an earlier investigation by the school or facts at the time of the murder.
The duty to protect arises when there is notice to the district that violence may be directed at a particular child. Foreseeability is again the key – if you can’t foresee that there is a real threat, the duty to protect does not arise.
None of this will help Cassie Jo’s parents deal with their tragic loss, and the decision is in no way a reflection on the part of the Court that it views their loss as any less tragic. Still – crime victims cannot always find relief in the civil court processes. If you are a victim of a crime, consult a lawyer about the facts of your situation.