Federal appellate court rules that Wisconsin district is not liable for drowning death of student on class outing
According to a report in Education Week, a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (IL, IN, WI) has ruled that a Milwaukee school district may not be held liable under federal civil rights law for the drowning death of a 12-year-old student on a class outing to a lake.
The parents of Kamonie Slade sued the school district and several educators after their son drowned while swimming at a public beach. Kamonie’s school had sought parental permission for students to “play in the water” on the field trip. But the beach had no lifeguard, and the Milwaukee district’s rules forbid recreational swimming on field trips when no lifeguard is present.
Court papers say Kamonie was a poor swimmer but waded deeper and deeper into the lake until he was drawn either by a current or the slope of the lake to a depth that was over his head.
The three-judge panel upheld the dismissal of the family’s federal civil rights claim, though the panel suggested the family’s state law claims for negligence, at least against the assistant principal who led the field trip, may well be “meritorious.” But in the panel’s opinion, Judge Richard A. Posner says the parents’ arguments that the defendants enticed Kamonie into danger “overshoot the mark.” “The defendants’ negligence enhanced the risk to Kamonie, but negligence is not enticement, or deliberate indifference, or blindness to obvious dangers,” Posner writes in the Dec. 27 ruling.
The judge explores various concepts from U.S. Supreme Court and lower court decisions dealing with civil rights claims seeking to hold government agencies liable for private harm to individuals, such as “deliberate indifference” and “shock the conscience” behavior. Posner suggests that “recklessness” is the proper standard for such cases, and that the defendants’ behavior did not deprive Kamonie of his life in violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Still, besides suggesting potential state law negligence, Judge Posner had harsh words for some of the school district’s defenses. “Kamonie was only a 12-year-old,” Posner writes. “He lacked mature judgment; and he was subject to the usual peer pressures that beset children. Was it realistic to expect him to hang back when his classmates were splashing around in the water? The defendants’ argument that Kamonie was the author of his own death is heartless, ….”
Source: Education Week, 12/28/12, By Mark Walsh
[Editor's Note: The opinion by the Seventh Circuit three-judge panel in Slade v. Bd. of Sch. Dirs., No. 12-2425 (7th Cir. Dec. 27, 2012), lays out the reasoning in reaching its decision in this case. In focusing only on the federal Section 1983 and due process claims in this appeal, the panel noted that "[n]egligence is … not a basis for liability in a due process case, as the case law makes clear…. Gross negligence is not recklessness (or ‘deliberate indifference’) in either the civil or the criminal sense.”]