Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters (aka the Xavier Institute) has existed in several most versions of the X-Men as a place of safety for young mutants, a training ground for future X-Men, and a private school. These purposes are somewhat in tension, however, and students are sometimes injured either in the course of instruction or because of attacks on the school. That leads to today’s question from Frank, who asks: “Is Professor X responsible for minor students in a parental capacity? What happens when one of them is injured or killed while at school?”
There are a few different aspects to this question. First there’s the question of the school’s institutional liability, and second there’s the question of Professor X’ (and the teachers’) personal liability.
I. Institutional Liability
Xavier’s School is a private school in New York. It’s usually written as a charitable school. In some states this would entitle it to a certain degree of immunity, but New York (unlike, e.g., New Jersey) rejected the doctrine of charitable immunity several decades ago. Bing v. Thunig, 2 N.Y.2d 656 (1957). So if the school can be sued, what could it be sued for?
The most likely cause of action is negligence: negligently allowing students to take part in dangerous activities, negligently failing to prevent superpowered students from harming one another, negligently failing to protect the students from outside threats, etc.
Normally one isn’t liable for failing to protect someone else from harm, but certain special relationships (e.g. parent/child) can create a duty to rescue, protect, or supervise. Schools have such a relationship with students:
Schools are under a duty to adequately supervise the students in their charge and they will be held liable for foreseeable injuries proximately related to the absence of adequate supervision. Schools are not insurers of safety, however, for they cannot reasonably be expected to continuously supervise and control all movements and activities of students; therefore, schools are not to be held liable for every thoughtless or careless act by which one pupil may injure another. A teacher owes it to his or her charges to exercise such care of them as a parent of ordinary prudence would observe in comparable circumstances. The duty owed derives from the simple fact that a school, in assuming physical custody and control over its students, effectively takes the place of parents and guardians.
Mirand v. City of New York, 84 N.Y.2d 44, 49 (1994). So while a school may not be liable for every injury caused by a student, it will be liable if the injury was the result of inadequate supervision. What’s more, since Xavier’s is a residential school, this duty is basically continuous, because “Ordinarily, the duty of care imposed on a school district, and in this case a private school, terminates upon a student’s release from their physical custody.” David XX v. Saint Catherine’s Center for Children, 699 N.Y.S.2d 827, 830 (App. Div. 1999).
So the school’s liability will ultimately come down to whether the teachers and staff acted reasonably and whether the injury was foreseeable. If the teachers follow all the right protocols but a superpowered delinquent blows up the school, well, that’s tough. Similarly, a random attack by evil mutants may be unforeseeable, so it doesn’t really matter whether the school took reasonable precautions to protect the students from such an attack or not.
II. Personal Liability
“A school district, like any other employer, may be held vicariously liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior for a tort committed by an employee in the course of the performance of the employee’s duties.” Mary KK v. Jack LL, 611 N.Y.S.2d 347, 348 (App. Div. 1994). Of course, the employee is also still liable (and the employer can turn around and seek compensation from the employee for any damages the employer has to pay out), but most plaintiffs prefer to sue the party with deeper pockets.
But as the quote suggests, the employer is only liable under certain circumstances. As the Mary KK court said, “What constitutes the scope of employment is generally a jury question, but” there are some guidelines. “An act falls within the scope of an employee’s duties when the employee is doing his master’s work, no matter how irregularly, or with what disregard of instructions. On the other hand, there is no respondeat superior liability for torts committed for personal motives unrelated to the furtherance of the employer’s business.” Murray v. Watervliet City School Dist., 515 N.Y.S.2d 150, 152 (App. Div. 1987). More specifically, courts and juries look at factors such as:
the connection between the time, place and occasion for the act; the history of the relationship between employer and employee as spelled out in actual practice; whether the act is one commonly done by such an employee; the extent of departure from normal methods of performance; and whether the specific act was one that the employer could reasonably have anticipated
Riviello v. Waldron, 47 N.Y.2d 297, 303 (1979). Sometimes the school might be vicariously liable, but it won’t be liable for the actions of “rogue” (no pun intended) employees.
We certainly hope Xavier’s has a serious insurance policy (or three). Not only could it be sued, but it’s a magnet for serious injuries. Waivers can help for voluntary activities, but not there are limits to what can be waived. Of course, if the school goes beyond negligence and into the realm of gross negligence or intentional misconduct then its insurer may not cover it at all.