Plaintiff Michele L. Anderson pursued a negligence claim against the Soap Lake School District (SLSD) up to the Washington State Supreme Court following the death of her 17-year-old daughter Sheila M. Rosenberg. The state’s high court dismissed the case in a 5 to 4 decision citing that Anderson failed to sufficiently support her claims with evidence. Rosenberg and her boyfriend died after allegedly leaving the home of a school basketball coach where they were provided alcohol by the coach.
Igor Lukashevich, 22, hosted Rosenberg and her boyfriend, Pavel Turchik, when the alcohol was consumed. The two left the home driving erratically and were traveling in excess of 90 mph when they were in a collision and were ejected from the vehicle. Turchik’s blood alcohol content was approximately 0.175% and Rosenberg’s was 0.20 at the time. Lukashevich’s actions that day were contrary to district policy and his contract was not renewed. The claim alleges that the school district demonstrated negligence in their hiring, supervision, and employee retention.
Lukashevich was hired by SLSD in 2010. He had prior experience as a basketball player and assistant coach. Judge John Antosz, who heard this case in the Grant County Superior Court, described Lukashevich as a “rogue teacher” and said the interactions described in the claims were “contrary to his authority and unrelated to his work.” Before students are eligible for sports participation their parents must sign an Activities Code Agreement that outlines the expectations for behavior and conduct. In the Supreme Court, Judge Charles K. Wiggins deemed the defendant’s actions to be “irresponsible;” however, were not sufficient to make the school system liable for the incident.
Questions of Fact
Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud was among the dissenting judges who felt there were three clear questions of material fact as follows:
- If the district was aware of concerns regarding underage drinking among the student population.
- If the district allowed for staff to meet with students outside of the campus setting for “meals and socials after hours.”
- If the district administration failed to inform staff that alcohol was not to be provided to students.
District’s Scope of Responsibility
State laws acknowledge that a duty to care exists between a school district and their students when within their “scope of authority.” A district may be potentially liable regardless of whether they are aware of possible risks to the student. Districts are to proactively recognize possible risks and prepare accordingly to protect students. Districts also are responsible for properly supervising students when they are overseeing student conduct, such as when engaging in school-related activities. School districts are not responsible for maintaining the duty to care when allegations of negligence are too remote.
Negligent Hiring Liability
Employers may be considered liable for actions of employees with a prior history of abusing their authority if through due diligence these concerns would have been revealed. Employers should implement protections from negligent hiring such as by properly completing background investigations (checks) of potential employees. An employer who is aware of a potential employee’s past criminal activity is not necessarily hiring in a negligent manner, as based on laws these records are often sealed or otherwise shielded from employers.