The family of a bullied Massachusetts boy won’t be able to go after their local school district due to an outdated law limiting liability.
On Tuesday, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court dismissed the litigation, citing the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act. Under the act, school districts are shielded from liability in the event a student is injured by a classmate.
The ruling, writes the Boston Globe, came in the tragic case of fourth-grade student Matthew Mumbauer. While the boy and his parents issued numerous complaints to school officials about ongoing bullying, little action was taken to remedy the daily harassment. Mumbauer still had to attend the same class as his tormenter and was made to stand next to him in line each morning.
On March 10, 2008, Mumbauer’s bully pushed him down a stairwell.
For the past decade, Mumbauer’s been handicapped – permanently paralyzed, according to the Globe. Yet the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act protects Lynn district from litigation, likely due to the law having a different intent from its effect.
“Bullying is a persistent, pernicious problem in our schools – it can cause emotional and, at times, physical harm,” wrote Justice Kimberly Budd as part of the court’s unanimous ruling. “In this case, [student] Matthew Mumbauer suffered both.”
Despite Budd and her colleagues’ sympathy, Mumbauer’s family can’t take action against the school. Due to the limitations set by the Tort Claims Act, the boy’s parents can’t sue, even though there’s evidence district officials took steps which specifically endangered their son.
“Those working at the elementary school could have and should have done more to protect Matthew,” continued Budd. “Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Legislature has imposed restrictions on the act that exempt school districts from liability.”
Attorney Douglas K. Sheff, who represented the Mumbauer family, told the Globe he feels courts are handcuffed – sympathetic toward students injured by bullying, but unable to act due to the Tort Claims Act’s phrasing.
“You can only bring a lawsuit against a school or a public employer if they were the original actors of harm,” said Sheff in a Tuesday phone interview.
“That’s ludicrous,” he said, adding that the Tort Claims Act in its current form presents a “nonsensical, dangerous, and potentially deadly threat to our children.”
ABC News writes that Mumbauer, permanently paralyzed, cannot breathe without the assistance of a ventilator. The 2008 article links to surveys showing the prevalence of bullying, with some 80% of middle school children admitting to victimizing peers within the 30 days prior.
“I’ve devoted my life to protecting victims of catastrophic injury and the current law, as approved with our Legislature, has prevented me and countless others from protecting children and adults from serious injuries and deaths,” said Sheff. “We need change now.”