Tort laws are laws that offer remedies to individuals harmed by the unreasonable actions of others. Tort claims usually involve state law and are based on the legal premise that individuals are liable for the consequences of their conduct if it results in injury to others (McCarthy & Cambron-McCabe, 1992). Tort laws involve civil suits, which are actions brought to protect an individual’s private rights. There are two major categories of torts typically seen in education-related cases: intentional and negligence.


Intentional Torts

Intentional torts are usually offenses committed by a person who attempts or intends to do harm. For intent to exist, the individual must be aware that injury will be the result of the act. A common type of intentional tort is assault. Assault refers to an overt attempt to physically injure a person or create a feeling of fear and apprehension of injury. No actual physical contact need take place for an assault to occur. Battery, on the other hand, is an intentional tort that results from physical contact. For example, if a person picks up a chair and threatens to hit another person, assault has occurred; if the person then actually hits the second person, battery has occurred. Both assault and battery can occur if a person threatens another, causing apprehension and fear, and then actually strikes the other, resulting in actual injury.

Teachers accused of assault and battery are typically given considerable leeway by the courts (Alexander & Alexander, 1992). This is because assault and battery cases often result from attempts to discipline a student or stop a student from injuring someone. Courts are generally reluctant to interfere with a teacher’s authority to discipline students (Valente, 1994). Courts have found teachers guilty of assault and battery, however, when a teacher’s discipline has been cruel, brutal, excessive, or administered with malice, anger, or intent to injure.

In determining if a teacher’s discipline constitutes excessive and unreasonable punishment, courts will often examine the age of the student, the instrument, if any, used to administer the discipline, the extent of the discipline, the nature and gravity of the student’s offense, the history of the student’s previous conduct, and the temper and conduct of the teacher. For example, a teacher in Louisiana was sued and lost a case for assault and battery for picking up a student and slamming him against bleachers. The teacher then dropped the student to the floor resulting in the student’s arm being broken (Frank v. New Orleans Parish School Board, 1967). In Connecticut, a student was awarded damages when a teacher slammed the student against a chalkboard and then a wall, breaking the student’s clavicle (Sansone v. Bechtel,1980). Clearly, both of these actions were excessive and indicate that in such situations teachers may be held personally liable for injuries that occur to students because of the teacher’s behavior.


Negligence Torts

The second type of tort seen most frequently in education related cases is negligence. The difference between negligence and an intentional tort is that in negligence the acts leading to injury are neither expected nor intended. Students who bring negligence claims must prove that school personnel should have foreseen and prevented the injury by exercising proper care. Accidents that could not have been prevented by reasonable care do not constitute negligence (McCarthy & Cambron-McCabe, 1992).

There are four elements that must be present for negligence to occur: (1) the teacher must have a duty to protect students from unreasonable risks, (2) the teacher must have failed in that duty by not exercising a reasonable standard of care, (3) there must be a causal connection between the breach of the duty to care and the resulting injury, and (4) there must be an actual physical or mental injury resulting from the negligence. In a court, all four elements must be proven before damages will be awarded for negligence.

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