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State high court ruling may mean longer, pricier litigation for school districts

The California Supreme Court building seal.
The California Supreme Court building seal.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The California Supreme Court ruling that school districts may be liable for hiring or supervising an employee who molests children could mean a lengthier and more expensive litigation process for districts dealing with teacher misconduct lawsuits.

The state's highest court ruled Thursday that "a public school district may be vicariously liable...for negligence of administrators or supervisors in hiring, supervising and retaining a school employee who sexually harasses and abuses a student," according to the 22-page opinion.

Officials for the Los Angeles Unified School District, is facing dozens of lawsuits involving a former Miramonte Elementary School teacher who is charged with 23 counts of lewd acts upon a child, could not comment on the specific ramifactions.

(Superintendent John Deasy said he couldn't comment without having reviewed the opinion. The district's legal department did not provide a comment, said LAUSD spokesman Thomas Waldman.)

The ruling stems from a case in which a 15-year-old student was sexually molested by a guidance counselor at a Santa Clarita high school over eight months in 2007.

A complaint alleges that the William S. Hart Union High School District knew that such unlawful conduct had occurred with the guidance counselor in the past and that it had failed to take reasonable steps to prevent further unlawful sexual conduct.

The district said it could not be held responsible as a public entity. That technical question ended up going up to the state's high court. Now it will return to the lower court, where that case is still in its pleading stages.

"When the true facts come out, they will show that the district appropriately screens its teachers and counselors and that the alleged perpetrator here was found out, arrested and prosecuted because of the district's vigilance,"  said attorney Robert Olson, who represents the district.

Administrators and the school districts they work for are liable only if the administrator had "substantial reason to know of the molestation (not just rumors) and the plaintiff proves causation — that the administrator could have effectively fired or suspended the perpetrator," said Olson, explaining the ruling.

Here's a snippet from Thursday's state Supreme Court opinion:

"We emphasize that a district’s liability must be based on evidence of negligent hiring, supervision or retention, not on assumptions or speculation. That an individual school employee has committed sexual misconduct with a student or students does not of itself establish, or raise any presumption, that the employing district should bear liability for the resulting injuries. We note, as well, that even when negligence by an administrator or supervisor is established, the greater share of fault will ordinarily lie with the individual who intentionally abused or harassed the student than with any other party, and that fact should be reflected in any allocation of comparative fault."

Olson said the ruling will result in a higher "transaction cost" — "it's going to cost [districts] a lot more to have lawyers on these cases, and they're going to extend out further."

The opinion makes it clear that the perpetrator bears most of the fault, and thereby the majority of the liabiltiy for noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering or emotional distress — usually the bulk of the damages in such cases, Olson said.

"The broader question is, these are still very difficult cases for plaintiffs to've got to show that somebody knew something and didn't do anything, and tht's very unlikely, and even if you show that, as the court made clear, the majority of the fault likes with the molester," Olson said. "They tend to be big publicity cases, little recovery."

He continued: "Litigation is a huge burden on what’s going on, people have to show up to depositions. It is a real time and emotional burden on people and all that takes away from actually educating kids."

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).