What the Georgia Supreme Court Decision in Barnett et al. v. Caldwell Teaches Us About Immunity for Public Officials
Ministerial and Discretionary Acts for Teachers
School is supposed to be a safe place, and the last thing you want to think about when you send your kids to school every morning is whether they will be coming home at the end of the day. Unfortunately, every parent’s nightmare became a reality for Jena Barnett and Marc Antoine Williams, the parents of Antoine Williams, who died as a result of a classroom fight with another student while his teacher left the classroom unattended. Although Antoine’s parents tried to hold Antoine’s teacher responsible, the Georgia Supreme Court decided in Barnett et al. v. Caldwell earlier this year that public officials, like Antoine’s teacher, are entitled to public official immunity when they act according to their own discretion.
On October 14, 2008 at Benjamin E. Mays High School, Antoine’s teacher, Phyllis Caldwell, left her classroom for approximately 30 minutes in the afternoon for unknown reasons. Ms. Caldwell asked another teacher, Gibril Kanu, whose classroom was separated from Ms. Caldwell’s by a bifold, to “listen out” for her class while she was gone. While Ms. Caldwell was gone, Antoine engaged in horseplay with another student, who landed on top of him and caused him to collapse and become unconscious. When Ms. Caldwell returned to her classroom, Antoine was still lying unconscious and was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.
The primary question in this case was whether Ms. Caldwell, the classroom teacher, was entitled to public official immunity under Georgia law. Specifically, Article I, Section II, Paragraph IX of the Georgia Constitution states that public officials can be subject to suit and liability for not performing or negligently performing their ministerial duties, but they cannot be subject to suit or liability when performing discretionary acts, unless they are performed with malice or intent to cause injury.
It is clear in this case that Ms. Caldwell did not act with actual malice or intent to cause injury, so the main question then becomes whether Ms. Caldwell leaving her classroom unattended was considered a ministerial or discretionary act. Whether a public official’s actions are ministerial or discretionary is decided on a case by case basis, but case precedent certainly seemed to point in favor of Ms. Caldwell. Indeed, the Georgia Supreme Court referenced in this decision several past Supreme Court and Appellate Court decisions that all labeled student supervision as a discretionary function. See, e.g., Murphy v. Bajjani (2007), Leake v. Murphy (2005), Butler v. Doe (2014).
What We Can Learn From the Georgia Supreme Court’s Holding in Barnett et al. v. Caldwell
There is a fine line between ministerial and discretionary acts, as referenced in the Georgia Constitution. In essence, ministerial acts are acts that a public official is required to perform as part of his or her job duties, and discretionary acts are acts that a public official performs as a result of his or her own judgment. Personal injury cases can be complex and heavily dependent on the facts, and each case must be carefully scrutinized by the attorneys and judges in order to produce the right outcome.