One of the common defenses against a negligence lawsuit is sovereign or governmental immunity, which was developed in common law to provide government organizations and their employees with protection against legal liability in a lawsuit. While there are many benefits of sovereign or governmental immunity, the general theory behind the immunity is that it would be unfair to penalize all the citizens of the state for the benefit of a single person.
During the second half of the 20th century, however, a majority of states began to question the rationale behind sovereign or governmental immunity and started to eliminate or substantially limit the scope of the immunity. While it may be diminished in importance, the doctrine of sovereign or governmental immunity is still a valid defense against negligence in most states. A good example of this is Donna Andreozzi PPA Nicholas Andreozzi v. Town of East Haven et al., 2015 Conn. Super. LEXIS 854.
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While jogging around the track at Joseph Melillo (Conn.) Middle School with approximately 25 to 30 fellow members of the East Haven Academy cross country team, 13-year-old Nicholas Andreozzi ran into a bench that had been placed on lane one of the track. When he fell, Andreozzi suffered a displaced fracture of the radius of the left wrist. As a result of the injury suffered by her son, Donna Andreozzi filed a negligence claim against the school and the cross country coach, Ed Crisafi, for failure to ensure a safe environment.
In support of her claim, Andreozzi pointed out that the East Haven Public Schools Handbook for Athletic Coaches states that athletic coaches are to provide assistance and safeguards for each participant. The handbook, Andreozzi argued, imposes a legal duty on the coaches, which Crisafi had breached.
At trial, the East Haven School District and Crisafi raised the defense of governmental immunity. In examining whether the doctrine of governmental immunity applies, the court held that in cases involving the negligence of employees, the application of governmental immunity depended on whether the negligent act was a ministerial or discretionary act.
A ministerial act refers to a duty performed in a prescribed manner without the exercise of judgment or discretion. In order to create a ministerial duty, there must be a city charter provision, ordinance, regulation, rule, policy or any other directive compelling a municipal employee to act in any prescribed manner. If the act in question involves a ministerial duty, the court held, municipal employees may be liable for the negligent performance of the act. Andreozzi claimed that the duties imposed on the coaches by the East Haven Public Schools Handbook for Athletic Coaches imposed such a ministerial duty on Crisafi.
In ruling that the act in question was not ministerial, the court referenced the handbook and found that it did not prescribe any particular manner of performance. Rather, it simply stated that coaches were to ensure a safe environment and provide safeguards to the athletic participants. How exactly the coaches set about ensuring a safe environment or providing safeguards, the court found, required the coach to use his or her judgment and discretion.
While municipalities and their employees are generally immune for the negligent performance of discretionary acts, the court noted that there are three exceptions. The first states that liability may be imposed for a discretionary act when the alleged conduct involves malice, wantonness or intent to injure. The second exception states that liability may be imposed for a discretionary act when a statute provides for a cause of action against a municipality or municipal officer for failure to enforce certain laws. The third exception allows liability to be imposed when the circumstances make it apparent to the public officer that his or her failure to act would be likely to subject an identifiable person to imminent harm.
Andreozzi claimed that even if the court found the acts discretionary, the actions of Crisafi fell within the imminent harm/identifiable victim exception. In applying the imminent harm exception, the court held that the exception only applies when it is apparent to the public that his or her failure to act would be likely to subject an identifiable person to imminent harm.
In applying this test to the facts, the court found that while schoolchildren — who are statutorily compelled to attend school during school hours on school days when parents are statutorily compelled to relinquish protective custody of their children to a school board and its employees — qualify as an identifiable class of foreseeable victims, the same does not apply to voluntary participants in afterschool activities off school grounds. Since there was no statute requiring Andreozzi to participate in cross country — making him a voluntary participant — and the injury occurred after school had ended and off school grounds, the exception did not apply.
The case presents important lessons for school and athletic administrators. First, the key to this case is the immunity defense. Generally, coaches and schools have a duty of care to protect their students and provide a safe environment. In the above case, allowing a bench on the track is a breach of that duty and the defendants normally would have been found to be negligent. The only thing that saved the school and the coach from paying damages was the immunity defense and the voluntary nature of the activity, with it being after school and off school grounds.
Second, even though the school district and Crisafi were able to use the governmental immunity defense and were therefore immune from liability for Andreozzi's injuries, it is important to note that the requirements of the defense may be different from state to state. However, no matter what state you live in, if an employee is required to perform his or her duty in a prescribed manner and does so negligently, governmental immunity generally will not help protect the employee from legal liability.
Finally, because it is generally believed that government officers and employees should be free to exercise judgment and discretion in their official functions, unhampered by fear of second-guessing and retaliatory lawsuits, the court generally will not allow lawsuits based on an employee's discretionary act.
Attorney John T. Wolohan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor of sports law in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics at Syracuse University. This "Legal Action" column originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Athletic Business with the headline, "Immunity System."