Mica Spady v Bethlehem Area School District and Ors (2014) H&FLR 2014-48

United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)

30 July 2014

Coram: Slomsky J

Appearing for the Plaintiff: Richard J. Orloski and Steven C. Ameche (of Orloski Law Firm)
Appearing for the Defendants: Paul G. Lees (of Marshall, Dennehey, Warner, Coleman & Goggin)

Catchwords: Pennsylvania – school – physical education – death – constitutional violations – officials immunity – exceptions – training

Facts: Juanya Spady was a student at Liberty High School, operated by the defendant. On 2 December 2010 he attended a swimming class as part of Physical Education (PE). During the class he complained to the teacher of feeling unwell but finished the lesson. The evidence was conflicted as to whether the teacher compelled him to complete the lesson. During his next class (which was in a classroom) he collapsed and had difficulty breathing. First aid was administered, including CPR and use of an automated external defibrillator. An ambulance was called, but Master Spady died in hospital later that day. The cause of death was disputed, although one theory alleged toxicity caused by swimming pool chlorine.

The deceased’s mother commenced proceedings on behalf of his estate under 42 U.S. Code §1983, alleging breaches of the deceased’s constitutional rights to personal security, life, liberty and freedom from state-created dangers and unconscionable arbitrary government action. She also brought claims in State law for ‘wrongful death’ as well as a survival action on behalf of his estate. The defendants sought summary dismissal of the constitutional claims.

Held: Rejecting the defendant’s application, that –

1. The State may be liable where it has created or exacerbated a danger which causes a plaintiff to be deprived of their Fourteenth Amendment rights. For the claim to succeed, the plaintiff must show that the harm alleged caused was foreseeable and fairly direct, that a State officer was culpable to a degree that shocks the conscience, that the plaintiff (or a person in the plaintiff’s position) was a foreseeable victim of the defendant’s actions, and that the officer affirmatively used their authority so to endanger (or worsen the danger) to the plaintiff

Morrow v Balaski, 719 F.3d 160 (3d Cir. 2013)

2. Government officials are not liable for civil damages, unless the plaintiff can establish that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right which was clearly established at the time of the alleged wrongful act. For the immunity to be lost, the unlawfulness of the official’s actions should have been apparent to a reasonable official.

Wood v Moss, 572 US __ (2014); Halsey v Pfeiffer, No. 13-1549, 2014 WL 1622769 (3d Cir. Apr. 24, 2014)

3. The School district can be liable under §1983 where it had a policy or custom which lead to the alleged constitutional violation. Where the policy was a failure to train an employee, the failure must amount to deliberate indifference (in the form of disregarding a known or obvious consequence*) to the rights of people who will deal with the employee and also have in fact caused the violation.

Natale v Camden County Correctional Facility, 318 F.3d 575 (3d Cir. 2003); Thomas v Cumberland County, 749 F.3d 217 (3d Cir. 2014)


The Court’s judgment is available here.
* Cf ‘gross negligence’: Stephen Tuck, ‘A Recent Decision of the Florida DCA on Gradations of Negligence‘, Amer. Bar Assoc. Commercial Transp. Litigation Comm. News 10 (Winter 2014).