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Teachers' lawyers criticize Kentucky justices' decision

BY ANDREA MOOREamoore@paducahsun.com

A recent Kentucky Supreme Court ruling gives principals a higher level of legal immunity than teachers in certain situations.

The ruling disappointed Mary Ruble, the Kentucky Education Association's general counsel.

"Although we have the utmost respect for Justice Mary C. Noble (who wrote the opinion), we are dismayed at the result in this case, which renders a teacher unreasonably and impossibly liable for the state of the physical environment in which they are directed to supervise students," Ruble stated. 

Ruth Green, director of the Kentucky Association of Professional Educators, said the decision could jeopardize teachers across the state and is concerned about the precedent it sets.

"Teachers have certainly become more vulnerable with this decision," Green stated.  

The case, Marson v. Thomason, involves a blind student, Anthony Thomason, who fell off bleachers in 2008 at the shared gymnasium of South Floyd middle and high schools in Hi Hat. His arm and head were injured in the fall. His parents filed suit in Floyd Circuit Court against the principals of the two schools as well as Eddie Hamilton, a teacher who had been assigned to watch over the students as they arrived in the gym.

The circuit court ruled that both the principals and the teacher did not have governmental qualified immunity, and the Kentucky Appeals Court agreed. However, the Kentucky Supreme Court reversed part of the appeals courts decision and held that both principals did in fact have qualified immunity and could not be sued. The Supreme Court upheld the appeals court ruling that the teacher did not have immunity.

The teacher's attorney, Jonathan Shaw, is petitioning the Kentucky Supreme Court for a rehearing or modification of its decision.

"My client feels that this decision by the Kentucky Supreme Court hampers teachers' ability to fulfill their duties,"  Shaw said.

The court stated that because a principal's role called for judgment calls in governing the school, immunity was extended to those acts. But it said that the teacher's role was ministerial, and because his duties were more defined, immunity did not extend to him.

"Mr. Hamilton had no ministerial duty to properly physically prepare the gym for the student's arrival," Ruble said. "The court acknowledges that duty rested on the unidentified custodian."

The court stated that the decision to determine whether certain acts were specific or discretionary did not rest on a person's status or title but on the function performed.  

"KEA believes school employees have the same right to rely on their co-workers as the principal has to rely on the employees that she supervises. The fact that the plaintiffs failed to identify the appropriate school employee who may have failed to perform his or her ministerial duties should not shift that legal burden to the next available level of employee who had the misfortune to be on the scene at the moment," Ruble added.

Contact Andrea Moore, a Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8684.

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