Virginia: Statutory Sovereign Immunity – a Lawyer’s Analysis

Virginia: Statutory Sovereign Immunity – a Lawyer’s Analysis

In the Virginia brain injury case of Gagnon v. Burns, No. CL08-572 in Gloucester Circuit Court, the defendant assistant principal alternatively claims sovereign immunity by statute, Va. Code Ann. §8.01-220.1:2(A). Defendant argues that “teachers” in that statute actually means “principals” and “assistant principals” too.

It is hornbook law that statutes in general in derogation of the common law are to be construed narrowly. Further, it also is hornbook law that immunities in particular are disfavored and must be construed narrowly. §8.01-220.1:2(A) is no exception to those tandem rules of construction.

No jurisprudence construes §8.01-220.1:2(A)Tazewell County School Bd. v. Brown, 267 Va. 150 (2004), cited by the brain injury defendant, actually involved Va. Code Ann. §22.1-308, not §8.01-220.1:2(A). His reliance on 16 M.J. Schools §18 at 365 to extend “teachers” to “principals” likewise is misplaced: because Mitchie’s cites Tazewell County as its only Virginia jurisprudence on the definitional point, it necessarily falls with Tazewell County.

Tazewell County does not define “teachers” as including “principals” for all purposes. Tazewell County delineated that under the State Grievance Procedure “teacher” meant only classroom instructors and other non-supervisory personnel (non-principals) under Part II, while “teacher” expressly was broadened to include principals only under Part III. Id. at 159 and 162. Thus, since §8.01-220.1:2(A) does not expressly define “teachers” broadly to cover supervisory personnel like principals, §8.01-222.1:2(A) is analogous to Part II versus Part III of §22.1;308i.e., covers classroom instructors versus principals too.

Further, other statutes clearly distinguish between “teachers,” on the one hand, and “assistant principals” or “principals,” on the other hand. For example, Va. Code Ann. §22.1-293 applies only to principals and assistant principals, while Va. Code Ann. §22.1-295is limited to teachers.