The Ohio Supreme Court released an important decision in favor of Ohio school districts yesterday._ The case, Doe v. Marlington (2009), 2009-Ohio-1360, arose out of a tragic incident in which a young girl with special needs was sexually assaulted on the school bus by another student. The court held that the exception to the sovereign immunity law imposing liability for the "negligent operation of a motor vehicle" does not include supervision of the students on the bus. OSBA's Legal Assistance Fund participated in this case by providing an amicus curiae brief written by Nicole Donovsky at Means, Bichimer, Burkholder and Baker. OSBA Director of Legal Services, Hollie F. Reedy stated, "OSBA believes the case was correctly decided according the law. The ruling ensures that the limited financial resources of school districts are protected from an erosion of sovereign immunity." The student who assaulted the female student eventually pled "true" to a delinquency count of gross sexual imposition. After the assault, the student's parents sued the school district, and the school district asserted its sovereign immunity defense under RC 2744.02. Ohio's sovereign immunity laws (RC Chapter 2744) grant immunity to public entities when they are engaged in governmental functions. Public education is a governmental function. There are several exceptions to immunity, one of which reads:

"RC 2744.02(B)(1): Except as otherwise provided in this division, political subdivisions are liable for injury, death, or loss to person or property caused by the negligent operation of any motor vehicle by their employees when the employees are engaged within the scope of their employment and authority."

The Does sought to avail themselves of this exception in their suit. They argued that the "negligent operation of a motor vehicle" encompassed everything the operator was trained to do, including supervising students. The board of education argued that this exception was limited to injuries caused by driving or moving the vehicle, such as motor vehicle accidents. The board moved for summary judgment at the trial court, and the trial court denied the motion. The court of appeals reversed, holding that "operation" did not encompass supervision of students. Yesterday, the Ohio Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the court of appeals. In its opinion, the court sided with the board:

"While the facts alleged in this case are distressing, the plain language of R.C. 2744.02(B)(1)s exception to political subdivision immunity for the negligent operation of a motor vehicle does not include within its scope the negligent supervision of the conduct of students on a school bus as alleged here. It is our duty to apply the statute as the General Assembly has drafted it; it is not our duty to rewrite it."

Posted by OSBA Legal Ledger on 4/1/2009