06 Mar Virginia Sovereign Immunity: Gross Negligence – a Lawyer’s Exception
This concludes the five-part series on Virginia sovereign immunity pleaded in the brain injury case of Gregory Joseph Gagnon, et al. v. Travis Burns, et al., No. CL08-572 in Gloucester County Circuit Court. It covers the gross negligence exception, which the victim Plaintiff also was alleged.
In a 2003 school board employee case, the Virginia Supreme Court reversed and remanded the trial court’s judgment that a student plaintiff’s allegation for gross negligence against his football coach was factually insufficient as a matter of law. In Koffman, “gross negligence” was defined as “that degree of negligence which shows indifference to others as constitutes an utter disregard of prudence amounting to a complete neglect of the safety of [another].” 265 Va. at 15. “Because reasonable persons could disagree on this issue” of alleged gross negligence in the tackling demonstration, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in Koffman that “a jury issue was present”. Id. at 16.
Even Green v. Ingram, 269 Va. 281, 291-292 (2005), relied upon by the Assistant Principal in Gagnon, found plaintiff raised a jury question on the sovereign immunity issue of gross negligence, noting that the difference between gross negligence and ordinary negligence (versus recklessness willfulness or wantonness) simply was “one of degree” (versus a “matter of kind”). doing absolutely nothing at all after unequivocally assuring that he would alert security for the impending altercation about which he warned and his protection was sought presents a prima facie case of gross negligence to be decided by a jury.
The Assistant Principal in Gagnon claims that “Banks v. Sellers [ 224 Va. 168 (1984)] concerned facts almost identical to the facts alleged in this case”. But the brain injury victim in Gagnon asserts that Banks actually is distinguishable on multiple grounds.
First, Banks was handed down before the seminal opinions of the Virginia Supreme Court in Koffman, Friday-Spivey, Heider, and Lentz, when in general the then-evolving law of sovereign immunity still was not settled completely, when in particular the focus was on the judgment and discretion of the general position versus on the specific wrongful act as it is now. Second, Banks involved the “principal,” not an “assistant principal” as in the matter sub judice. Third, Banks only alleged simple negligence, not gross negligence as in the matter sub judice. Fourth, Banks involved a sharply divided Court, with three dissents and a “concur in result” as the swing vote; times in general and schools in particular unfortunately have changed materially for the worse in the 27 years since Banks was decided, school administration of necessity now routinely involves physical safety measures metal detectors, on-premises security, etc. as in the matter sub judice; and Taboada v. Daly Seven, Inc., 271 Va. 313 (2006) on reh. 273 Va. 269 (2007) calls into question the continuing viability of Banks even on its own facts.