COLUMBUS - Ohio law is clear that local governments and their employees are not immune from lawsuits if they fail to report known or suspected child abuse to law enforcement, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The vote was 4-3, with Justices Andy Douglas, Alice Robie Resnick, Francis Sweeney, and Paul Pfeifer in the majority and Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, Evelyn Stratton, and Deborah Cook dissenting.
“It will have a major impact on protecting kids in Ohio,” said Gary Leppla, a Dayton attorney on the winning side.
“We have had a real tendency over the last 20 years to push immunities for businesses, insurance companies, corporations, and political subdivisions,” Mr. Leppla said.
Fred Cloppert, an attorney representing the state's largest teachers' union, the Ohio Education Association, said he is studying the decision to see how it affects other school districts. The OEA had urged the high court to shield districts and their employees from liability - a position that insurance companies supported.
Justice Cook issued a stern warning about the ramifications of the decision.
“The majority's holding not only opens the door to civil liability but is also tantamount to a decree that a political subdivision can be criminally prosecuted for a person's failure to report suspected abuse,” she wrote.
In 1997, a couple from Fairborn, Ohio, Carl and Sharon Campbell, sued Fairborn City Schools, alleging that a teacher failed to notify authorities that their daughter - during a counseling session - had complained that a male friend of her family had improperly touched her and tried to kiss her. The lawsuit named the superintendent and the teacher as defendants.
The teacher told the daughter to tell her mother about the male friend of the family, but the teacher did not report the child's allegations to authorities, according to court records.
A judge in Greene County ruled in favor of the school district, the superintendent, and the teacher, saying they were immune from liability under the state's “sovereign immunity” law, a concept that says a government may not be sued in its own court without its consent.
A state appeals court upheld the decision. The Supreme Court accepted the case because appeals courts throughout Ohio have issued conflicting rulings on the issue.
In the decision written by Justice Douglas, a former Toledo city councilman, the court ruled that the case should be sent back to Greene County for a new hearing.
State law requires teachers and other school employees to report known or suspected child abuse.
Attorneys for Fairborn City Schools argued that the state law does not “expressly” impose liability for failure to report allegations. The court majority disagreed, saying the legislature made it a fourth-degree misdemeanor to violate that law.
Justice Cook said school districts and employees should not be liable civilly just because there is a criminal penalty for failing to report abuse allegations.
In two other decisions , the high court ruled unanimously that state law does not explicitly impose liability for local governments and their employees who fail to investigate child abuse allegations or inspect family day-care homes.
Justice Douglas wrote that local governments and their employees are shielded from suits unless a law expressly imposes liability, which is not the case regarding child abuse allegations or family day-care home inspections.