Personal injury lawyers typically deal with statutory law, typically derived from common law. Occasionally, however, injury attorneys are confronted with Constitutional law issues, such as the following premises liability case dealing with the sexual abuse of students at a public school. A recent United States District Court opinion held that a school official who covers up the sexual abuse of students may be liable for the violation of the students’ right to due process. Sandra T.-E., et al v. Robert Sperlik, et al, No. 05 C 473, 2009 WL 2241807 (N.D. Ill. July 23, 2009). The district court denied summary judgment in favor of the defendants, in a case alleging that a principal in the Berwyn school district actively concealed the sexual abuse of a band teacher who molested several female students while he was working as a music teacher in Berwyn elementary schools. Still, the court did not rule on the merits of the allegations.
The specific allegations against the band teacher are shocking: the police alleged that the band teacher bound students to chairs with rope and duct tape and fondled them, in apparent reenactments of bondage scenes from his collection of pornography. The teacher eventually plead guilty to several counts of aggravate sexual abuse and kidnapping.
The parents of some of the students brought civil claims against the school district and school officials for ignoring or covering-up the sexual abuse. The court held that public officials, while not liable for a “mere failure to supervise,” are liable for continuing or condoning a practice that violates the United States Constitution. The court allowed the due process claims to proceed against the principal for giving a “watered-down version” of the victims’ accusations of abuse to parents, leading them to believe that the girls merely overreacted to a seminar designed to teach them the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching. The plaintiffs also allege that the principal failed to inform anyone in the school district of the abuse allegations.
This case is far from the typical personal injury case handled by most top injury and accident lawyers. However, this case shows how lawyers should keep in mind Constitutional violations, as well as state statutory or common law violations, in all personal injury or sexual abuse cases.