The Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania faces several claims for negligence brought by former students. Judge Christopher Conner found the private boarding school did not have general responsibility for the overall social welfare of students. Conner found the school’s relationship with the minors contractual in nature and the children remain under the legal custody of their parents. Two former students were seeking damages in personal injury suits alleging wrongful treatment.
The dismissal applied to seven of 13 claims within the suits and also denied a request for an appeal from plaintiff attorneys. David Hoffman, Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, believes the decision may allow the school immunity in injury claims; however, he questioned the validity of the enrollment agreements. In particular, Hoffman thinks that the contract essentially allows the school to individually make contract changes as they see fit.
Today, Milton Hershey School has an enrollment of approximately 2,000 and accepts students from low-income households for kindergarten through 12th grade. It was established in 1909 by Milton & Catherine Hershey offering a free private education that includes extra-curricular activities, supplies, and medical care. The students share group housing with roughly 10 others, are supervised by house parents, and are expected to help with chores and other responsibilities. Prior to admission, parents must enter an enrollment contract, which was the basis for the court’s decision.
Conner called upon the “gist of the action” doctrine that exists in Pennsylvania. This law states that claims may not be brought for negligence, as they are limited to being considered a breach of contract. The judge interpreted the extent of this contract agreement to provide for clothing, education, feeding, and housing.
Both the Inquirer and Daily News examined the four-page agreement and made the following interpretations that had relevance to the claims:
- The school assumes clear responsibilities for the education and financial needs of the students
- Parents waive the right to sue according to the provisions
- The school may alter provisions unilaterally
- Whether or not the parents are relinquishing their legal rights by surrendering responsibility for the children is unclear
The first claim is a wrongful death suit filed by the parents of Abbie Bartels, a former eighth grader. Bartels, who suffered from depression, was expelled from the school and later committed suicide. The other is an injury claim brought by Adam Dobson, who is openly homosexual. Dobson claims to have been forced to view a video that was anti-gay. He was later expelled from the school after expressing suicidal intent.
Plaintiff attorneys say the school is based on assisting those with social needs and that an obvious social duty exists for the students. Mark Anderson, Professor of Law at Temple University, says the courts have long accepted a duty based on common law that schools assume when they have custody of children. He believes that this duty exists without a contract. The state’s attorney general’s office has apparently investigated the school in the past on several occasions.