Xavier’s School for Gifted Plaintiffs

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.

III. Conclusion

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.

12 responses to “Xavier’s School for Gifted Plaintiffs

  1. Xaviers has the best insurance possible. A telepathic headmaster, “These aren’t the damages you’re looking for”.

    • They covered what laws that sort of control might break earlier. It strikes me that people like Charles Xavier might face some stringent legal restrictions.

  2. Generally Xavier’s School is depicted as having robust defenses against outside attack (which probably raises some legal questions of its own). One could argue that having minor students living and matriculating on the same grounds as the headquarters of what amounts to a paramilitary strike force is intrinsically negligent, but a counterargument might be that given anti-mutant bigotry, mutant children might not be safe unless they’re in a secure stronghold and protected by a paramilitary strike force.

    • Of course the very existence of a paramilitary mutant force is at least dubious and depending on their actions (which don’t seem to recognize little things like national sovereignty or air traffic laws) could be outright illegal.

  3. would the parental responsibility include social factors? You seem to concentrate on physical injury and harm but surely psychological harm should be considered. Some examples.

    Were one of the students to get problems (PTSD comes to mind) as a result of being at risk would that be a factor?
    Alternately if a child observing routine assaults on his boarding school becomes a gun nut (or superpower nut) and many years later attempts to sue for damages caused by the schooling enviroment.

    It does occur to me that a reasonable argument could be made that perhaps the paramilitary force side of the X Men could be kept at a seperate location to the students?

    • TimothyAWiseman

      Whether or not the school would be liable for a case of PTSD obvious depends on how it was caused. If it is directly tied to a physical injury *that the school is liable for* then the student would probably have no problem claiming it as an injury. If it was not directly tied to some physical injury that the school is liable for then the student might have to argue something like Negligent Infliction of Emotional distress. NIED varies greatly by jurisdiction, but it generally has a higher bar for recovery than a physical injury would. Of course, to establish any liability at all, the student would still have to show negligence just as the post discussed.

      As for the student becoming a “gun nut”, the school would almost certainly not be liable, though there might be some extreme situations that change that. There would be two cases to look at. The first is the student trying to recover for the school making them into a “gun nut”. This is almost certain to fail, since possessing a personality trait is just not normally a claim for which relief can be granted. The exception here might be if the school was genuinely negligent in not protecting the student from something which directly altered the personality such as (in the X-men universe) telepathic attack. But then instead of suing for the “gun nut” part they could just sue for failure to protect them from the telepathic attack itself, presuming it was negligent for the school not to do so.

      The second situation is the gun nut harming someone else and them trying to sue the school. This again would almost certainly fail as the attack would be a perfect example of a supervening and intervening cause. Again there are some exceptions in the extreme case. For one, if the attack happened while the student was actually under school supervision then they could directly sue for the school negligently failing to prevent it without worrying about whether the school made that student a “gun nut”. Another is that if the school had actual knowledge of a specific named target they might have a duty to warn that target.

      So in short, the school would probably not be responsible for psychological harm, but it does depend on the situation and it could happen.

  4. Before joining the X-Men, the White Queen had her own group of students at Massachusetts Academy called the Hellions. In this case, the situation was different: the Hellions mixed with students who were non-mutant and who didn’t know that there were mutants at the school. If a non-mutant student were to be attacked by a mutant student and badly hurt as a result, what sort of liability would 1) the school, 2) the White Queen and 3) the Hellfire Club face, assuming Emma didn’t simply mind wipe everyone and made them forget (which is how she managed to keep the presence of mutants on campus a secret in the first place)?

  5. The best real-world parallels might be boarding schools which aim to train students for military service. These must deal with accidents, trauma, and having some very rough people around. Between that and schools which operate in gang-warfare areas, I suppose Xavier isn’t in an unreasonable legal position.

    • What are the laws around pseudo-military schools for civilians? I imagine that the Danger Room must violate some zoning requirement at least and I can’t see how they would get approval to build a hangar for the plane.

  6. Would secret identities affect this in any way? I’m thinking of the original X-Men, many (most?) of whose parents didn’t know they were mutants. Scott’s an orphan, but I’m pretty sure Hank, Bobby, and Warren were not “out” to their parents back then. I’m not sure about Jean. Would the fact that the students operated clandestinely help the school avoid lawsuits? “Your Honor, I had no idea they were sneaking out at night to fight Magneto.” That wouldn’t apply to Xavier, of course, without perjury, but could Xavier have a “front man” who was kept in the dark as to the school’s true nature?

  7. In the Marvel universe, mutants are considered 2nd class citizens. They are not afforded the same protection as humans are under the law. Black, right after the Civil War would be the closest parallel I can think of in our world. They aren’t slaves, but they are not citizens either.

  8. Pingback: Cerebro and Privacy Laws | Law and the Multiverse

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