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White and Williams Secures Decision in Matter of First Impression in DE

January 18, 2012

On January 18, 2012, Marc Casarino and Sean Meluney secured the dismissal of a lawsuit against a public school district by the relatives of a 16-year-old student who committed suicide at home on the evening after he received counseling services at the school related to his suicidal ideations. 

In Rogers v. Christina School District, the plaintiffs argued that the school personnel stood in loco parentis (i.e., as the equivalent to the student’s parents) to the student and therefore were under a special duty to protect him from harm. More specifically, the plaintiffs claimed that the school was grossly negligent by:

  1. Failing to notify the student’s guardians of his suicidal ideations and past attempts,
  2. Failing to hire staff trained in handling suicide risk or to provide such training to staff,
  3. Failing to establish a protocol for suicide prevention, and
  4. Failing to properly respond to the student’s suicidal intent.

On behalf of the school defendants, the attorneys from White and Williams countered that the school did not stand in loco parentis to the student and that there was no special relationship between the school and student, which would create a duty of care. After progressing through an analysis of the standard for a duty of care under Delaware law, the court agreed with the school’s position. In this regard, Delaware law does not recognize a duty of care in the tort context for nonfeasance or omissions, which were the only type of allegations raised by the plaintiffs. There is a limited exception to this general rule when the alleged tortfeasor stands in a special relationship to the injured party. A special relationship may arise where the alleged tortfeasor assumes an obligation to protect, the injured party reasonably relies upon that assumption, and foregoes other alternatives of protecting themselves. In this case, the court determined that the school did not stand in a special relationship to the student because it neither assumed an obligation to protect the student nor precluded the student from otherwise protecting himself.

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