Court Finds School Board Has Immunity in Wrongful Death Case Despite Liability Policies Creating Conflicting Interpretation of Statutes

Mar 26, 2021

By Michael A. Ross, MS

On February 2, 2021 Tonya Seymour, serving as Administratrix of the Estate of Frederick Seymour, (Plaintiff) brought forth an appeal against the Orange County Board of Education; Eric Jeffries in his individual capacity; Randy Jeffries in his individual capacity; and Wesley Holder in his individual capacity (Defendants). The details of this case surround both the Plaintiff’s wrongful death suit and the purchase of additional insurance by the Board of Education warranting increased consideration toward its sovereign immunity status as provided by the state. 

Factual Background

Frederick Seymour, age 13, was a student-athleteand member of the football team at Gravelly Hill Middle School housed within Orange County at the time of his death in 2016. During the first scheduled football practice of that season, Frederick suffered an asthma attack in which he was reported to have collapsed on the field. Three days after the asthma attack occurred during football practice, Frederick died from respiratory failure.

Resulting from these events, Tonya Seymour, serving as administratrix of Frederick’s estate, brought forth a wrongful death suit. It should also be noted that Tonya Seymour is the mother of Frederick Seymour. She would later file a singular amended complaint in the Orange County Superior Court stating a singular claim of negligence against the Orange County Board of Education (BOE) and the three aforementioned individuals (defendants). This amended complaint stated that the defendants’ negligence is in connection with the BOE pursuant to the doctrine of respondeat superior. Respondeat superior essentially states that a party (the BOE) is responsible for the acts of their agents (the defendants).

Expressed within the Plaintiff’s complaint is a negligence claim toward the defendants based on the following information. It is stated that the defendants acted in a negligent manner by not taking proactive measures after Frederick began displaying signs and symptoms associated with breathing difficulty. The Plaintiff furthers this claim by highlighting these signs and symptoms occurred during football practice and were evident by Frederick’s frequent use of his Albuterol inhaler. It was also provided that Frederick had an Emergency Action Plan instituted when such issues should arise that consisted of the defendants  allowing/requiring Frederick to use his inhaler, removing him from the activity that triggered his breathing difficulty and if necessary taking further action that would provide additional support to remedy his ailment while providing increased safety measures. The Plaintiff stated that Frederick’s death was directly and proximately cause by the negligence of the defendants.

As a result, the BOE moved to dismiss the compliant based on the reasoning and Rules 12(b)(1), (2), and (6) of Civil Procedure based on all applicable governmental immunities. The trial court denied the motion provided by the defendants, which resulted in the BOE filing a notice of appeal in a timely manner. This appeal warrants a timely and urgent review because the verdict rendered by the trial court directly affects the BOE’s substantial right to their sovereign immunity. To reinforce the immediacy required of this ordeal the court cites Smith v. Phillips, 117 N.C. App. 378, 380, 451 S.E.2d 309, 311 (1994) which states the following:

When a motion is made on the grounds of sovereign and qualified immunity… a denial is immediately appealable, because to force a defendant to proceed with a trial from which he should be immune would violate the doctrine of sovereign immunity. 

A key factor that must be considered when examining this issue is the current and established legislation that determines how the aforementioned sovereign immunity is upheld or negatively impacted. The current legislation states that “a county or city board of education is a governmental agency, and therefore is not liable in a tort or negligence action except to the extent that it has waived its governmental immunity pursuant to statutory authority”. Additional status exists to address instances in which sovereign immunity is waived on behalf of a board of education.

Any local board of education, by securing liability insurance as hereinafter provided, is hereby authorized and empowered to waive its governmental immunity from liability for damage by reason of death or injury to person or property caused by the negligence or tort of any agent or employee of such board of education when acting within the scope of his authority or within the course of his employment. Such immunity shall be deemed to have been waived by the act of obtaining such insurance, but such immunity is waived only to the extent that said board of education is indemnified by insurance for such negligence or tort.

The Board of Education is a member of the North Carolina School Boards Trust (NCSBT). The NCSBT purchased additional insurance on behalf of the Board of Education, through the means of the Great American Insurance Company (GAIC). Because of this measure being taken on behalf of the Board of Education, the Board of Education is subjected to exclusion listed within the aforementioned additional insurance policy provided by GAIC which includes a specific Athletics Clause. The athletics clause specifically states the following:

Any claim made by an athletics participant (or made by the parent(s) or guardian(s) of an athletics participant for the participant’s medical expenses) arising out of or in connection with, in whole or in part, athletics, including but not limited to tryouts, selection, practices, games, meetings, training, equipment, participation, discipline, and travel. This exclusion does not apply to claims arising from activities occurring during a regularly scheduled physical education class or during recess. 

Based on the aforementioned and provided legislation in hand, both parties agree on two components: 1) Frederick’s death arose out of or was in connection with the athletic activity previous stated and 2) the Board of Education has waived its governmental immunity by purchasing the additional, or reinsurance coverage to the extent the insurance policy at issue explicitly indemnifies it from liability. The Plaintiff claims that based on the language set forth within the athletics clause, the defendants are no longer protected by sovereign immunity. The meaning and language used within the policy is now the focus of the court and the policy’s application and purpose must be considered before a verdict can be rendered. To examine the policy and its language the court relied upon previous findings and utilized their parameters to address this specific case through the lens of the following criteria.

If the language is an exclusionary clause contained in an insurance policy is ambiguous, the clause is to be strictly construed in favor of the coverage. If the meaning of the policy is clear and only one reasonable interpretation exists, the courts must enforce the contract as written; they may not, under the guise of construing an ambiguous term, rewrite the contract or impose liabilities on the parties not bargained for and found therein.

The previously highlighted and detailed athletics clause was found to be clear and unambiguous by the court. Upon further review, two elements were deemed necessary for a given claim to fall under exclusion. The first element requires the claim be made by an athletics participant, or parent or guardian of the athletics participant for the participant’s medical expenses. The second element requires the claim to arise out of or in connection with an athletic activity. Essentially, while the second element is agreed upon by all parties, the first element would allow for exclusion because claims for medical expense reimbursement were not established. The question of the Plaintiff’s status was also considered as she was listed as the administratrix of the estate but this provided insignificant status for the court in which they stated the personal representative of a decedent’s estate is the equivalent of a claim brought forward by the athletics participant, if he had survived, against the Board of Education.

Applying precedents of other cases involving exclusionary clauses and their application to an event, the court makes note that they have consistently applied said exclusions to the personal representative of the decedent’s estate. This application has occurred despite some specific title or claims being expressly listed within the policy itself. Using the aforementioned cases as a foundation of reasoning, the court also specifically states that nowhere in the exclusions did the policy mention wrongful death, a representative of the decedent’s estate, or an administrator of the decedent’s estate. This comparison and highlighting of facts are utilized to allow the parties and readers to better understand the similarities that do exist despite the differences in each case while also providing justification for the framework in which a verdict would ultimately be decided upon.

This reasoning allows for the following understanding to be applied; the wrongful death statute allows the trustee of said estate to only pursue such actions for damages as the decedent could have brought forward if they had lived. In this specific case, if Frederick had survived, a negligence claim could have been brought forth against the Board of Education. Because he did not survive, the only remaining option for his estate to seek remedy through would be a wrongful death suit. The wrongful death suit could only be brought forward by Frederick’s mother, the decedent’s personal representative. Despite the language used in the Athletics Clause failing to mention specifically the role of a representative of a decedent’s estate, the Plaintiff’s claim while serving as administratrix of Frederick’s estate is considered the same as a claim being established by Frederick himself. Based on this reasoning and justification, the Plaintiff’s claim is found to be excluded from the Board of Education’s liability coverage and the Board of Education did not waive its sovereign immunity. In summation, the Plaintiff’s claim is barred from recovery by the court. The official ruling presented by the court states “The Board is immune from Plaintiff’s wrongful death suit where the personal representative of the deceased’s estate’s suit is equivalent to a claim brought by the athletics participant.”                      

Application  

One such area warranting additional and future consideration from a practitioner perspective is the potential repercussions resulting in multiple insurance policies and how they may affect one another. Not witnessed within this specific case, but something to consider in future adoptions of additional insurance, are the loopholes that may come into existence that schools and various board of education entities need to consider from both a liability and negligence perspective and the potential outcomes that may ensue. Another key point highlighted within this case is the importance placed on the language, terminology, construction, intent, and purpose in which an insurance policy, its clauses and exclusions provide to those directly affected through their implementation. Although the final result did not specifically harm the board of education and the other defendants, it does shed light on potential gaps in protection that various insurance policies may have. With this in mind, parties similar to those witnessed throughout this case should take as many proactive measures as possible while implementing a sound and thorough risk management plan for all stakeholders involved.  

References

Estate of Seymour v. Orange Cty. Bd. of Educ., No. COA19-334-2, 2021-NCCOA-10; 2021 WL 347630

Michael A. Ross is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Shorter University and a PhD student at Troy University specializing in research related to youth sport studies, leadership, social media policies and procedures within athletics and participation motivations in sport and recreation.

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