In a unanimous decision that was rendered on August 26, 2021 in the school negligence case of Joni C. v. Cheektowaga-Sloan Union Free School District, an upstate appeals court went to the unusual length of not only reversing a trial jury's (and judge's) verdict in the plaintiff's favor, but also dismissing the plaintiff's claim in its entirety.

What the Plaintiffs Claimed in This Case

In this particular case, the plaintiffs claimed that when a school faculty member spoke into a microphone and instructed the students to “be quiet,” the loudness of the announcement caused their daughter’s injury.

I readily admit that at first blush, at least to my thinking, this case sounds extraordinarily weak. The additional facts adduced at trial - at least according to the appellate court - strongly support my "gut" feeling on this.


Why the Appellate Court Felt Compelled to Dismiss the Action - Notwithstanding the Jury Verdict in the Plaintiff's Favor

In its decision, the appellate court noted the following:

  1. That plaintiff’s daughter was 75 to 100 feet away from the speakers at the time the announcement was made;
  2. That many other students were closer to the speakers than she was at that time; and,
  3. That no one else in a room of over 100 persons suffered injury. 

Ultimately, in summarizing its rationale for reversing the trial jury's verdict, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department stated as follows:

"Although the proof at trial reflected that a school faculty member had “yelled” two words into a microphone and “was really loud” in doing so, there was no proof presented that those words were spoken in a manner or at a volume that was unreasonable, foreseeably unsafe, or in violation of any applicable standard of care. In other words, “[w]ithout knowing what is ‘too loud’,” “there [was] no standard of care by which a jury could determine on the evidence presented that defendant[] had breached a duty owed to plaintiff” (Powell v Metropolitan Entertainment Co., 195 Misc 2d 847, 850 [Sup Ct, NY County 2003])."

The Takeaways

Granted, there is a well-known doctrine of the "egg-shell plaintiff," stating that a defendant may be held liable for the injuries suffered by a particularly vulnerable plaintiff, even when others would normally be able to withstand what happened without any adverse effect. And, although not apparent from the face of this decision, it may be safely assumed that the plaintiffs in this case were able to convince the jury that the fact that others were unharmed by this "loud announcement" is of no consequence in determining the school's liability for her injuries.

On the other hand - and more importantly - however, absent proof as to what the actual decibel level was, or what the applicable standard for volume was at that time, the plaintiffs were missing critical evidentiary and legal pieces needed to prove their case. And it ultimately caught up to them - at the appellate level.

This leaves us with an important takeaway: if a plaintiff's case has significant evidentiary and legal holes, it will likely spell the doom of the case - sooner or later.

Jonathan Cooper
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Non-Compete, Trade Secret and School Negligence Lawyer
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