Precedent-setting ruling finds school board vicariously liable for teacher’s sexual abuse

A precedent-setting ruling declaring a school board vicariously liable for sexual abuse carried out by one of its teachers provides useful guidance for both educational administrators and sexual assault victims, says Toronto civil litigator Stephany Mandin

CBC News recently reported on the case, brought by a woman who sued over historic sexual abuse experienced while she was a student in the 1980s.

According to the news outlet, Ontario Superior Court Justice David Salmers ordered the former teacher and his employer, the Trillium Lakelands District School Board, to jointly pay the woman $500,000 in damages after finding both had breached their fiduciary duties to her.

“The decision is not precedent setting in the sense that it sets a new legal standard for establishing vicarious liability, because it has been imposed previously on churches for sexual abuse by clergy,” explains Mandin, principal of Mandin Law. “However, it is an important decision in that the school board has been found vicariously liable for assaults committed by one of their teachers.” 

“Justice Salmers has not only provided future litigants with a decision to anchor their own cases on, but the decision serves as a helpful guide for employers and school boards who are hoping to reduce their chances of becoming ensnared in a claim of vicarious liability,” she adds.

CBC News reports that the plaintiff was 16 when the defendant – her music teacher and band leader – first abused her in 1983, during a car ride home from a band trip. The assaults continued over the next few months, occurring in the teacher’s car, his school office and music rooms.

According to the story, senior school officials became involved the following year after the student revealed some of the abuse to a guidance counsellor, and the teacher was ultimately asked to resign, but not before completing the school year. However, neither police nor the girl’s parents were informed because she wanted the incidents kept secret.

In his decision, Justice Salmers found the school board breached its duties to the victim by failing to offer her any emotional or psychological support, and by allowing the teacher to temporarily remain in his post, concluding that administrators’ actions “were directed at protecting” the school board.  

No criminal complaint was filed at the time of the abuse, but Mandin says that one is not necessary for a civil action to be launched over the same events.

“Although a victim may be called to give evidence as a witness, the focus of a criminal proceeding really is on the accused individual, and whether they are in fact guilty of a crime,” she says.

By contrast, a civil action allows victims of sexual assaults to assume control of their case and seek findings of liability and monetary damages for harms caused to them; which is where vicarious liability may come into play.

Mandin explains that the concept allows employers to be held responsible for wrongful acts committed by their employees, even if they did not know about them, and would have disapproved had they known.

However, a court must first be convinced that a person’s misconduct was sufficiently linked to their employment. In addition, the finding must support the twin policy goals of vicarious liability: fair compensation and deterrence of future harm.

“Individual perpetrators of sexual assault often do not have deep enough pockets to satisfy the judgments made against them, so it can be a pretty illusory victory if the tortfeasor can’t actually pay,” Mandin says. “If you have a viable vicarious liability claim against an institution such as a church or school board, then you have greater assurance that your judgment will be satisfied and you will get the money you need to put you in a position to seek the medical and emotional support you may require.”

“From a practical perspective, it’s helpful as a litigator to have a decision where the court finds that the twin policy goals were satisfied,” she adds.

But Mandin warns that the ruling will not necessarily open the floodgates to sexual assault claims against school boards, noting that judges will decide vicarious liability on a case-by-case basis.

“The events here took place in the 1980s, when the landscape was quite different in terms of school board policies and procedures,” she says.

Still, the case should prompt educational administrators to take a fresh look at their responsibilities to students: 

“It’s important not only to have policies that mitigate against the possibility of assault or violence in the school or workplace, but also to have policies for the timely investigation of allegations, swift sanctions, and transparency in the process,” Mandin says.