On July 23, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine dismissed, with prejudice, a 1983 claim arising out of the drowning death of a seventh grade student while on a school sponsored outing at a state park. On June 12, 2018, the City of Lewiston’s Middle School arranged for an outing of students to Range Pond State Park in Poland, Maine. The trip involved 111 students and was chaperoned by 11 adults employed by Lewiston’s School Department. In addition to the school chaperones, one lifeguard employed by the State of Maine was also present. At the park, there were playground and picnic areas available to the students, as well as a designated swimming area that was cordoned off with floats. A number of chaperones were assigned to the adjacent beach area, to watch students who chose to go into the water.
Plaintiff’s minor son, R.I., participated in the field trip and, at one point, engaged with other boys having a catch with a football in the cordoned off swimming area. At some point, another student advised chaperones that R.I. was missing. It was not immediately clear whether R.I. had gone missing from the swimming area or one of the other areas the students were using in the park. The lifeguard on duty was immediately notified. The lifeguard asked chaperones to join him in the water to look for R.I. there, but they were unsuccessful in locating him. Rescue personnel who were called to the park did locate R.I. in the water but, tragically, efforts to resuscitate him ultimately failed.
Plaintiff’s father/Personal Representative filed suit in federal court against the City of Lewiston, its School Department, and the State of Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry, which oversees the state park’s operations. See Abdisamad v. City of Lewiston, et al. The federal claim was based on a 14th Amendment “duty to protect” theory. While the 14th Amendment contains no generalized “duty to protect” citizens that is imposed on governmental entities, an exception has been recognized in some federal jurisdictions, known as the “state-created danger” exception. The “state-created danger” exception applies when a government actor has taken some affirmative steps to increase the danger or hazard to which the citizen is exposed, beyond that which would normally be encountered without such government action, which then triggers a “duty to protect” the citizen from such danger. The “state-created danger” exception, if applicable, still requires plaintiffs to set forth factual allegations that, if true, would amount to” conscience-shocking” behavior that violates Substantive Due Process rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.
The City of Lewiston filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, asserting that it contained no allegations of conduct that could be “conscience-shocking,” nor did it allege any conduct on the part of government employees that increased any danger to R.I. The City argued that the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause acts as a limitation on the government’s power to act against a person, and is not a guarantee of certain minimal levels of security or safety provided by the government to the citizenry. The City asserted that the federal court was without jurisdiction to entertain a suit that was, in its essence, a state tort claim for negligent supervision of the students and not a claim of Constitutional dimension. The School Department, named as a separate party, joined in the motion filed by the City.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Maine agreed with the City’s position, finding the complaint’s vague assertion that school employees failed to follow unspecified “protocols and procedures” did not set forth factual allegations amounting to “conscience-shocking” behavior. The court also found the complaint was devoid of allegations that any school employee engaged in acts or omissions that exposed R.I. to a greater degree of danger, or special hazard, from which the City and School Department owed a special duty of protection, thus failing to demonstrate there was a “state created danger.” Lastly, the court found the allegations that chaperones failed to follow municipal policies or protocols do not demonstrate that such conduct was the result of any municipal policy or custom. The court granted the City of Lewiston’s Motion to Dismiss the 14th Amendment claim that was asserted, and dismissed that claim with prejudice. Because the Due Process claim was the only ground for federal jurisdiction, the court dismissed the state tort claims without prejudice, and granted judgment in favor of the City of Lewiston and its School Department for the federal claim.
The City of Lewiston was represented by Drummond Woodsum attorneys Kasia Park and Ed Benjamin.