A well-respected New Jersey jurist has made a ruling of the first impression, holding that a school district sued under New Jersey’s strict anti-bullying law may bring contribution claims against the students accused of harassing the plaintiff. This ruling may mean that students who actually do the bullying may be found to share responsibility with the district when the victimized student brings a claim against the school district under the statute.
New Jersey has a specific law addressing bullying, and it is known as the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, N. J. S. A. 18:37-13. In the case being discussed here, a 17-year-old boy brought suit against the Flemington-Raritan Regional Board of Education under the Anti-Bullying statute and the Law Against Discrimination, alleging that the school staff failed to address his complaints about being taunted for being overweight and for his perceived homosexuality. While the young man attended school in the Flemington – Raritan district from 4th until 8th grade, he alleged that other students “pantsed” him (pulling down his pants to expose his underwear) on two occasions, threw a plate of spaghetti on him in the lunch room, threw kick balls at his groin in gym class and jabbed him sharply in the side of the abdomen to inflict pain. His mother repeatedly reported the harassment with school administrators but nothing was done, according to the lawsuit. When the young man entered high school in the Hunterdon Central District, the bullying continued and included harassing comments on Facebook, but the high school administrators took minimal actions to respond in response to his complaints, the lawsuit alleges. The young man developed anorexia, requiring a three-month hospitalization during his 10th grade year. The school district decided to issue his diploma a year early, at the end of 11th grade, in light of the ongoing harassment.
The young man, identified as “V.B.” in the lawsuit, sued the school district, and the school district responded by bringing third-party complaints against 13 students who are alleged to be the actual perpetrators of the bullying conduct, seeking contribution under the Joint Tortfeasor Contribution Law. Attorneys representing the third-party defendant students moved for summary judgment, seeking to have the claims against their clients dismissed. Judge Yolanda Ciccone, a highly respected jurist who is the Assignment Judge for Hunterdon, Somerset and Warren counties, denied the motions, and has allowed discovery to proceed. (Discovery is the exchange of information which occurs in the course of a lawsuit.) The ruling did not mean that the plaintiff prevails in his claims, but it does allow the case to go forward.
This ruling is significant and may have widespread practical ramifications in the school community, because it exposes the bulliers to potential liability, although the judge left open the question of what legal standard those students and their parents can be held to. It is hoped that this decision, if it stands, may encourage families to be more vigilant about their own child’s behavior.
If you or your children have been the victim of bullying in the school setting, Stark & Stark may be able to assist you. Contact us at 1-800-535-3425 or starkinjurygroup.com.