23 October 2020

Court Denies Teacher’s Appeal in Case of Student’s Severed Finger

In a recent unpublished case, JB ex rel. Barnes v. Detroit Public School District et al., the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of a teacher’s attempt to dismiss a case filed by a student whose finger was severed while at school.  The court reasoned that the case had not been sufficiently developed and early dismissal was not warranted.

The facts of the case are straightforward.  In October 2017, First Grade Teacher Terri Smith asked a student in her class, JB, to go to the main office for being disruptive during her lesson.  After Smith ushered JB from the room and believed he was on his way to the office, Smith closed the door.  As Smith shut the door, JB attempted to sneak into the classroom, and JB’s finger was caught between the door and frame – severing the tip of JB’s middle finger.  Despite swift medical attention, it was not possible to reattach the severed part of the finger.  According to JB’s mother, JB stated that Smith had shut the door on his finger on purpose out of anger.  JB’s mother filed a legal action in court on his behalf, alleging assault, battery, and gross negligence.  Smith moved for summary disposition, attempting to obtain a quick dismissal of the case without trial.  After the court denied Smith’s motion, she appealed.

Smith argued the court below erred in denying her motion because she was entitled to governmental immunity in her role as a teacher.  Under the law, governmental employees may be immune from liability for intentional acts where the conduct was performed within the scope of employment, was made in good faith and without malice, and was discretionary.  However, the court determined that there was a question as to whether or not Smith acted in good faith and without malice when she shut the door.  JB specifically alleged that Smith’s act was malicious; on the other side, Smith argued she only closed the door when she thought JB was on his way to the office, and she stated that she did not see JB turn back toward the classroom.  Reasoning that the dispute over whether Smith acted in good faith and without malice precluded a determination for governmental immunity at this time, the court concluded that the trial court had properly denied Smith’s motion.  The court also opined that dismissal of the case at this juncture was inappropriate because discovery between the parties was still ongoing.

The opinion is accessible here.