North Carolina Contractor Laws Shield School Board from Special-Needs Transportation Liability

From School Transportation News, Amanda Pampuro discusses a case in North Carolina in which the school district was not liable for the acts of an independent contractor Amanda writes:

A North Carolina contractor law shielded a school district from liability when a student with special needs was sexually assaulted during transportation by a vendor.

Stokes County Schools contracted the Yadkin Valley Economic Development District Inc. (YVEDDI) to provide student transportation in 2013. Though safety monitors were out of the budget, the deal required YVEDDI to follow “an approved safety plan, provide a well-trained driver, conduct preemployment criminal background checks and drug testing of drivers, and to conduct random drug testing according to North Carolina Department of Transportation regulations,” according to court documents.

In November 2013, West Stokes High School student Lauren Osborne, a specials needs student with the functional capacity of a first grader, was moved from a yellow bus, with other exceptional children and an assigned monitor, to ride in a van alone with a single driver. Her Individualized Education Program (IEP) indicated she needed adult supervision throughout her school day to administer insulin to treat the her diabetes and to prevent bullying by other students. She also had a monitor on her school bus because other student passengers needed one.

The driver, YVEDDI employee Robert King, stopped the van during a December 2015 route, when Osborne was 20 years old, and sexually assaulted the girl..

A concerned Stokes County citizen reported seeing the van suspiciously parked, prompting YVEDDI to review video footage and report the incident to the local law enforcement. YVEDDI did not inform the school or Osborne’s mother, Michelle Powell, who learned of the assault when contacted by law enforcement.

Through her mother, Osborne sued YVEDDI and Stokes County Schools in December 2018. Osborne voluntarily dismissed claims against YVEDDI the following summer.

Osborne claimed negligence against the school district under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, but the trial court granted partial summary judgement to the defendant district on Feb. 18, 2020. Osborne appealed a month later.

“Here, plaintiffs allege the board ‘created a dangerous environment for Lauren’ by contracting with YVEDDI to transport disabled students, failing to require YVEDDI to have a monitor on the bus, and by not verifying that YVEDDI was monitoring the video camera,” wrote judge April Wood in a 33-page opinion. “While we agree that the board should exercise the utmost standard of care while making decisions regarding its students, we are obliged to find the board could properly delegate any duty owed to Lauren to an independent contractor such as YVEDDI under our current law.”

The court said Osborne’s attorneys failed to demonstrate that the school board increased her risk of private danger, and they did not establish a pattern of widespread abuse. The court additionally denied Osborne’s 14th Amendment equal protection claim in part because it found no evidence that she was treated differently from similarly situated male students.

Under a separate concurring opinion, Court of Appeals Judge Richard Dietz explained, “I am not prepared to hold that the felony sexual assault of a vulnerable special needs student is always foreseeable to school officials as a matter of law. Criminal acts ordinarily are not foreseeable under tort law principles.”

That didn’t mean no one could be held responsible, Dietz wrote.

“Whatever heightened level of protection the school district owed Lauren because of her special needs, the duty to provide that same level of protection passed to YVEDDI under the independent contractor rule,” he added.

North Carolina Court of Appeals Judge John Arrowood submitted a third concurring opinion.

Read the decision published by the Court of Appeals of North Carolina.

Read the full story at North Carolina Contractor Laws Shield School Board from Special-Needs Transportation Liability – School Transportation News

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