As you all know, I’ve spent nearly 30 years representing and counseling victims of accidental injuries; plenty of experience dealing with individuals who have gone through a traumatic event. What many of you don’t know is that I am, and have been, a high school basketball coach for many years. The past seven years have been spent coaching at West Bloomfield High School, which is in the same conference as Oxford, and I have been to that building many times. Coaching high school students has provided me with the ability to relate well with, and understand, that age group.
My two roles – as injury attorney and high school coach – provide me with a unique ability to understand traumatic events and the mindset of young adults in this community. It weighs on me daily. My thoughts continue to focus on those young adults affected – whether physically or mentally – and their families and community.
While much of the conversation this past week has focused on the shooter and his parents, I have had many conversations throughout the week about possible civil liability against the high school and its school district and employees. Waking up this morning I read the first complaint filed and expect to see many more in the coming days.
No matter how inflammatory some allegations in the media seem, a lawsuit against a public school is never a slam dunk. You see, all governmental bodies are entitled to something called “governmental immunity.” Governmental immunity is a set of laws that simply states you cannot sue a governmental entity unless you meet one of several exceptions. This would apply to any governmental entity, including schools, libraries, police or fire stations, city sidewalks and buildings among other entities. Without meeting an “exception,” your claim would be barred (this immunity is an awful law for the public, but I suppose if you were allowed to pass all laws, the first law you would pass would be that no one can sue you either!).
To illustrate the power of governmental immunity, I can give you one simple example. Let’s say you slip and fall on a Slurpee that someone spilled on the floor. If that slip is in a Target or other store, you may have a claim against that store. If you slipped on the same Slurpee at your public library, you are barred by governmental immunity!
One easy exception is the “motor vehicle” exception. If you are injured due to the negligence of a person driving a government vehicle, you can sue just like if you were injured by a private person. If you are struck by a police car, mail truck, or city snowplow, you would have a qualified exception.
To prevail against the Oxford School District, you would need to meet one of the exceptions to governmental immunity. The one exception myself or any other lawyer would argue applies is the “gross negligence” exception. Ordinary negligence, like the driver of a car running a stop sign would be barred. But gross negligence is like ordinary negligence on steroids and will qualify as an exception. “Gross negligence” is considered negligence so outrageous that the act would “shock the conscience” of an ordinary person. Did the failure of the teachers and administrators to demand his parents take him home constitute “gross negligence,” or simple, ordinary negligence? Did the failure to contact law enforcement or the school police liaison about these alleged drawings constitute gross negligence? How about hearing and discounting student and parent concerns about their safety? Now, of course, everything we hear in the media is still “alleged” and facts need to be sorted. This situation is still in its infancy.
I would love for you to reach out to me to discuss “gross negligence” on an individual basis, whether it relates to this horrific event or any other incident. History has proven it is difficult to establish, but this tragic event is one where advocating for those with life-altering injuries is certainly warranted. Once again, please join me by keeping the Oxford Community, in general, and certainly those injured, killed and affected, in your thoughts and prayers, and please continue to check-in on your children.