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School districts protected from negligence lawsuit by bullying victims, SJC rules

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act  insulates school districts from being held financially liable for injuries a bullied student suffers.
The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act insulates school districts from being held financially liable for injuries a bullied student suffers.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/File

The family of a Lynn elementary school student who was paralyzed after being pushed down a stairwell by a bully cannot seek monetary damages from the Lynn School District and officials, even though the system failed to protect the child, the state’s highest court ruled Tuesday.

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that existing state law — known to lawyers as the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act — insulates school districts from being held financially liable for injuries a bullied student suffers.

The ruling came in the case of Matthew Mumbauer, a fourth-grade student who was repeatedly bullied by one student in particular, yet he and the bully were required by officials to attend class together and to line up together at the start of the school day.

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On March 10, 2008, the bully pushed Mumbauer down a stairwell, causing permanent paralysis, according to court records.

“Bullying is a persistent, pernicious problem in our schools — it can cause emotional and, at times, physical harm,’’ Justice Kimberly Budd wrote for the court, which ruled unanimously. “In this case, [student] Matthew Mumbauer suffered both.’’

But Mumbauer’s family cannot obtain damages from the school district because of the Tort Claims Act even though there was evidence showing school officials took steps that endangered, rather than protected, the student, Budd wrote.

“Those working at the elementary school could have and should have done more to protect Matthew,’’ Budd wrote. “Nevertheless, the fact remains that the Legislature has imposed restrictions on the act that exempt school districts from liability.”

The SJC dismissed the family’s lawsuit against the school system.

Douglas K. Sheff, an attorney representing the Mumbauer family, said the state’s courts are handcuffed by a deficient state law that allows schools and public employers to shirk liability.

“You can only bring a lawsuit against a school or a public employer if they were the original actors of the harm,” said Sheff during a brief phone interview Tuesday evening. “That’s ludicrous.”

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He said the way the law is currently construed presents a “nonsensical, dangerous, and potentially deadly threat to our children.”

“I’ve devoted my life to protecting victims of catastrophic injury and the current law, as approved with our Legislature, has prevented me and countless others from protecting children and adults from serious injuries and death,” he said. “We need change now.”


John R. Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.