Choosing Sides: Titus v Lindbergh

Glen Dawursk, Jr.

July 15, 2007

Liability has become an issue for many school districts as our society becomes more and more obsessed with lawsuits; but how do we protect our schools and especially our self from unwarranted lawsuits? The answer is simply by knowing our responsibilities and by not being negligent to them.  In this brief report, I will discuss the case of Titus versus Lindbergh. I will argue against the school principal on the grounds of negligence and tort liability and prove that the court’s decision was correct.

 

On October 15, 1963, Robert A. Titus, a nine year old student at Fairview School in Middleton, New Jersey, was seriously injured by thirteen year old Richard Lindbergh.  While waiting at the school for a transfer bus to Thompson School, Lindbergh used a rubber band to fire a paper clip at Titus who was parking his bike in the school bike rack.  Additional important facts are: the incident occurred between 8 AM and 8:15 AM, the school building opened at 8:15 AM, and no teacher or principal witnessed the incident.

 

This case’s arguments revolve around the word “negligence.”  According to the Orange County DoE School Legal Services Manual, negligence is defined as “the omission to do something which a reasonable man would do or the doing of something which a prudent and reasonable man would not do; the failure to exercise ordinary care under the circumstances; conduct that a reasonably prudent man should realize involves an unreasonable risk of causing invasion of another’s interest; or, a failure to do an act that is necessary for the protection or assistance of another.” When applied to a school employee, the manual further suggests that four elements must be considered: legal duty, a breach of legal duty, proximate cause, and damages or injury. (Orange, 2005 p. ii) In this case, the principal (Mr. Smith), stated that he knew about students being present outside the doors at 8:00 AM.  He admitted that he was aware of the transfer students (which was mandated by the district transportation authority) waiting outside his school building between 8 and 8:15 every school day, and he admitted that he was aware of Fairview students arriving around the same time.  This testimony clearly established that the principal was not only aware of the situation, but also may have obligated him to supervisory responsibility as he was directed by the district to accept students for transfer on the school’s property. According to tort liability, and as the school’s primary supervisor, he would have been obligated to supervise or arrange supervision starting at 8 AM.

 

The principal’s argument that the school was not obligated to supervise prior to admitting students into the building goes against a later ruling in M.W. v Panama Buena Vista Union School District where it was determined that a school was “liable for supervising students on school grounds during non-instructional times when school grounds are open to students.”  (110, Cal. App. 4th 508, 2003 – Orange, p 3)  The fact that the school was designated as a “bus stop” by the district not only obligated the supervising principal, but also the district transportation authority as well.

 

Next, after further examination, Principal Smith admitted doing the supervision himself each day starting at 8 AM.  He said that only while observing the milk delivery was he regularly absent from the front of the building. Finally, he admitted that he was cognate of the “bullying” behavior of Lindbergh who was a prior Fairview student and of the “keep away” games played outside the building before school.  This information further defines the responsibilities of Principal Smith. 

 

According to Jackson v. Hankinson & Board  of Education of Shrewsbury (1968), “the relationship between the child and school authorities is not a voluntary one but is compelled by law. The child must attend school and is subject to school rules and discipline. In turn, the school authorities are obligated to take reasonable precautions for his/her safety and well-being.”  (New Jersey, 2007)  Principal Smith knew about the potentially dangerous situation in front of his building each morning -- this foreseeability is a significant factor.  Yet, he refused to require teachers to supervise before school. He also willingly allowed his own supervision to be lax at times. This duty may not have been specifically outlined, but it was inherent because of foreseeability and his willingness to arrive and supervise showed that he knew it was his responsibility.  His “intentional” refusal created a breach of the duty he had been inherently assigned.  

 

The negligence according to tort liability must include harm as a direct result of the negligence. Moreover, the student has a right to feel safe at the public school he is attending.  When a school employee permits an unsafe situation to persist and does nothing to alleviate it or warn parents of the unsafe condition, he is also negligent and liable under the law. The harm and subsequent injury were obvious in this case.  In the absence of the principal or any other assigned staff, Lindbergh hit two students with rubber band launched paper clips and severely injured Titus.

 

In this brief discussion, I have presented the issues and contentions I would face in prosecuting the principal. I have established the inherent responsibilities of the principal, the foreseeability of the situation, the possibility for harm, and the incriminating acknowledgments of the principal.  All of these lead to a case for negligence and tort liability upon Principal Smith.  His poor discernment and lack of concern for his student’s welfare should require significant discipline and possible dismissal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Sources Consulted

 

Donnelly V. Southern Pacific Company (1941), 18 Cal.2d 863, 118 P.2d 465

People V. Young (1942), 20 Cal.2d 832, 129 P.2d 353

New Jersey Judiciary (2007), Jackson V. Hankinson & Bd. Of Ed. Of Shrewsbury, 51 N.J. 230, (1968).Taken July 14, 2007 From Www.Judiciary.State.Nj.Us/Civil/Charges/532.Htm

Court Info (2007). Sources And Authority. Taken July 13, 2007 From www.Courtinfo.Ca.Gov/Reference/Documents/SER3700.DOC

Orange County Department Of Education (2005). District Liability. Taken July 14, 2007 From www.Ocde.K12.Ca.Us/Downloads/Legal/District_Liability-0705.Pdf