Author: Omer A. Khan, Attorney at Law
On June 26, 2020, the First Appellate District of the California Court of Appeals denied the parents’ appeal seeking to recover damages from a school district after their child tragically committed suicide. (Neeley v. San Mateo Union High School District (2020) 120 LRP 19625.) The court reasoned that the Government Claims Act, which permits claimants to collect money damages from public agencies for personal injuries, requires that claimants first give notice of potential claims to the District directly by presenting the factual basis for their claims in a manner prescribed by the District. Here, the court found that the parents’ claim was not factually specific enough to give the District notice.
The student was a senior in high school and a member of the school’s football team. The student was also on an Individualized Educational Program (“IEP”) because he had been experiencing mental and emotional difficulties. On January 13, 2014, the student tragically took his own life. About four months later, the parents presented their written government claim to the school. The parents alleged that a trainer for the football team had physically injured the student by massaging a muscle the student had strained during a football game causing the student to become severely depressed which, in turn, ultimately caused him to commit suicide. However, the parents’ written claim did not make mention of the student’s mental health issues or the school’s management of his IEP. The District denied the parents’ claim.
The parents then filed a petition in court for personal injury and wrongful death, asserting not only the same causes of action asserted in their prior written petition, but also adding that the District’s failure to provide a mental health assessment and mental health services pursuant to the IEP was a contributing factor to the student’s suicide. The trial court asserted that since the parents did not include these IEP-based allegations in their written claim to the District, they were not permitted to bring these allegations to court. The parents then appealed the court’s decision.
The Court asserted that that the written claim to the District was required to provide “[a] general description of the . . . injury, damage or loss incurred so far as it may be known at the time of presentation of the claim,” and “[t]he name or names of the public employee or employees causing the injury, damage, or loss, if known.” The purpose of such requirements was “to provide the public entity sufficient information to enable it to adequately investigate claims and to settle them, if appropriate, without the expense of litigation.”
Here, the written claim to the District failed to give the District notice regarding the nature of the parents’ claim. Their later claim regarding the failure of the school’s IEP team was based on an entirely different set of facts and involved different employees engaged in different allegedly wrongful acts than their personal injury claim initially included. Their special education theory of wrongful death was, simply put, entirely different from the football injury theory of wrongful death asserted in the claim submitted to the District. Since the parents failed to meet the written claim requirements, their special education causes of action could not proceed.
Properly implementing the Government Claims Act can be a daunting challenge for school officials due to the prospect of liability. However, local educational agencies should know that the Act itself includes a number of provisions designed to give them a chance to defend themselves. As described above, one such provision is the written claim presentation requirement, which requires the claimant to provide the LEA with the specific facts underlying the claim so that it may properly consider the claim. If an LEA receives a Government Claims Act written claim, the first step is always to review the written claim for timeliness and specificity. A deficiency in either category may significantly impact the outcome of a claim. In addition, LEAs should promptly contact their legal counsel and insurance provider whenever a claim is received.