This week news media reported that Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Mary Ellen Brennan dismissed all claims filed against the Oxford School District and its employees arising from the November 2021 mass shooting at Oxford High School. A tragedy that resulted in the deaths of four students and injuries to seven others. This is welcomed news for the Oxford School District and public schools and public-school employees across the State.
The reported basis for Judge Brennan’s decision was Michigan’s Governmental Immunity Act (the Act). The Act insulates governmental entities, including school districts, from all tort liability. The Act also insulates public-school employees from tort liability in the absence of “gross negligence.” Gross negligence being defined as “conduct so reckless as to demonstrate a lack of concern for whether an injury results.” Furthermore, the gross negligence, if it exists, must be “the proximate cause” of the injury, as opposed to one of many causes. The Act sets a high bar and governmental immunity can be a difficult obstacle to overcome. In this case, Judge Brennan concluded the student-shooter was “the proximate cause” of the deaths and injuries he caused. Oxford and its employees were, thus, eliminated as “the proximate cause” of those same deaths and injuries.
The attorney for the parents was quoted as saying the justice system had failed the families he represented. No doubt they feel that way. However, another way to look at this case is to acknowledge Judge Brennan confined legal liability to the person who actually caused the damage, instead of off-loading it to school administrators and teachers who are not trained and should not be expected to predict when a disturbed child will do the unthinkable.