Blowe v. Roberts

Blowe v. Roberts

GA Court of Appeals, 3/7/24

No. A23A1470, 2024 WL 979470

Judge Doyle

Topics: Qualified Immunity

Quick Take: Qualified immunity (AKA official immunity) barred a student burned severely by a teacher’s chemistry experiment against the teacher where there were no clear safety standards for her to follow and so no discretionless ministerial duty.

Full Take: The “next friend” (Roberts) of a high school student (Malachi McFadden) sued his chemistry teacher, Bridgette Blowe, after Malachi was burned during a class chemistry experiment. Blowe moved to dismiss on the ground that she was protected by official immunity. The trial court denied the motion in part, finding that Blowe had a ministerial duty that she negligently performed in relation to McFadden's injuries.

Blowe appeals, arguing that the trial court erred in holding as a matter of law that Blowe negligently performed a ministerial act.

Roberts cross-appeals, arguing that the trial court erred by denying her argument that various county ordinances, national safety codes, and other standards created ministerial duties that Blowe negligently performed.

Blowe conducted a science demonstration while the students watched. The demonstration consisted of Blowe lighting a piece of currency on fire after soaking the currency in a solution of isopropyl alcohol or ethanol and water. The solution resulted in an illusion in which the currency appeared to be on fire but was prevented from actually burning. Blowe had conducted the demonstration many times in the past.

Many of the students requested to see the demonstration a second time. Blowe agreed, and after dousing the flames, she placed the currency into a bowl that contained the solution of water and ethanol in preparation for another attempt before walking over to turn off the lights to provide a better view.

Unfortunately, Blowe had not completely extinguished the flames, and the currency reignited in the bowl. Blowe grabbed a beaker filled with what she thought was water and poured it on the bowl to extinguish the fire; however, the beaker contained ethanol, and pouring it on the flames caused the bowl to break and the flames to spread across the table. The flames jetted upward about four feet and across the room about six to seven feet, reaching the adjacent table and McFadden, who sustained burns to his arms, face, neck, and back. A substitute teacher and paraprofessional in the class along with Blowe attempted to assist McFadden, and after hearing calls over the school radio, the maintenance manager came into the class with a fire extinguisher and doused the flames. DeKalb County schools performed an investigation of the incident, concluding that Blowe violated Standard Nine of the DeKalb County Policy of Professional Ethics because she failed to properly label the beakers used in the demonstration.

Roberts filed the instant case alleging that Blowe was liable for causing McFadden's injuries because she negligently failed to perform certain ministerial acts. She cited all kinds of national and county standards. Blowe claimed official or qualified immunity. The judge granted most of her motion to dismiss, but denied it with respect to a few county standards that the judge thought imposed a ministerial safety duty. The judge granted summary judgment to the plaintiff on that. Both appealed.

The doctrine of official immunity, also known as qualified immunity, offers public officers and employees limited protection from suit in their personal capacity. Qualified immunity protects individual public agents from personal liability for discretionary actions taken within the scope of their official authority, and done without willfulness, malice, or corruption.

Under Georgia law, a public officer or employee may be personally liable only for ministerial acts negligently performed or acts performed with malice or an intent to injure. The rationale for this immunity is to preserve the public employee's independence of action without fear of lawsuits and to prevent a review of his or her judgment in hindsight.

A ministerial act is commonly one that is simple, absolute, and definite, arising under conditions admitted or proved to exist, and requiring merely the execution of a specific duty. A discretionary act, however, calls for the exercise of personal deliberation and judgment, which in turn entails examining the facts, reaching reasoned conclusions, and acting on them in a way not specifically directed.

Whether the act of a public official is ministerial or discretionary is determined by the facts of each individual case, particularly the facts specifically relevant to the official's act or omission from which the alleged liability arises. Where there is an established policy requiring an official to take specified action in a specified situation, the policy creates a ministerial duty on the part of the official to perform the specified task. In order for the written policy to impose a ministerial duty, the policy must mandate simple, absolute, and definite action and require the execution of a specific task without any exercise of discretion.

Even when an official clearly owes a duty of care and is absolutely required to do something, unless she has been commanded—by law or by the policy or directive of her employer—to do a particular thing, she still is engaged in the performance of a discretionary function.”

As a court, the wisdom of an employee's conclusion is not the question we evaluate; instead, we are tasked with discerning whether the employee had a range of options to choose from based on her own judgment. And in a situation where an official has that sort of discretion, the official is shielded from personal liability for the choices she makes, even if they are poor ones, so long as the official does not act with actual malice or intent to cause injury.

Although some ordinances can constitute a ministerial duty for an official, not every ordinance or statute does create a ministerial duty. The requirements in the cited ordinances were not “simple, absolute and definite,” and they did not “require the execution of specific tasks without any exercise of discretion.” “A duty is either discretionary or not, and an official cannot alter that fact by performing it well, poorly, or not at all.” Blowe may have performed her discretionary duties poorly, but because McFadden failed to establish that she violated a ministerial duty leading to his injuries, his claims against her are due to be dismissed. AFFIRMED IN PART, REVERSED IN PART.

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