SARAH COE PPA MARY ELLEN COE v. WATERTOWN BOARD OF EDUCATION et al., SC 18433
Judicial District of Waterbury
Negligence; Municipalities; Governmental Immunity; Whether Court Properly Found that Defendants' Actions were Discretionary; Whether Court Properly Found that Identifiable Victim, Imminent Harm Exception to Discretionary Act Immunity was Inapplicable. Sarah Coe was a Watertown middle school student attending a graduation dance held at a private facility when she was injured by stepping on broken glass. She and her mother brought this action under General Statutes § 52-557n against the town of Watertown, its board of education and two Watertown teachers who acted as chaperones at the dance, claiming, among other things, that the defendants were aware of the broken glass on the floor but failed to remedy the hazardous situation. The defendants claimed that they were immune from liability pursuant to § 52-557n (a) (2) (B), which provides that a municipality shall not be liable for damages caused by "negligent acts or omissions which require the exercise of judgment or discretion as an official function of the authority expressly or impliedly granted by law." The trial court agreed, ruling that the defendants were immune on finding that the sponsoring of a middle school graduation party at an off-school site constitutes a discretionary act. The court noted that there is an exception to discretionary act immunity where the circumstances have made it apparent to a municipal employee that failure to act would be likely to subject an identifiable person to imminent harm. The court ruled that the exception did not apply here because the harm to Sarah Coe was not foreseeable as it did not occur on school grounds, because her attendance at the dance was voluntary, and because she had voluntarily removed her shoes to dance before stepping on the broken glass. The plaintiffs appeal, claiming that, in determining whether the defendants' acts were discretionary or ministerial in nature, the court focused on the wrong conduct and never properly addressed whether the alleged failure to protect Sarah Coe from the broken glass constituted a discretionary function entitled to immunity. The plaintiffs also argue that § 52-557n (a) (2) (B) should be construed as immunizing only discretionary acts made while making policy decisions, not discretionary acts occurring at the "operational" level. Finally, the plaintiffs claim that the trial court wrongly determined that the "identifiable person, imminent harm" exception did not apply because the very purpose of the defendant teachers' presence at the dance was the supervision of the students and because, they claim, the teachers were aware that students were barefoot and in close proximity to broken glass on the floor.