Court Allows Suit Over School Gun Death to Proceed

By Mark Walsh — May 29, 2012 2 min read
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A ruling by Utah’s highest court will allow a lawsuit to go forward against a school district over the accidental gun death of a high school student.

The suit involves the Nov. 15, 2008, death of 15-year-old Tucker Thayer, who was handling a blank-filled gun that had been authorized for use in a production of “Oklahoma!” at Desert Hills High School in the Washington County school district. The gun was discharged near Thayer’s head, and despite the use of a blank cartridge, the force of the blast pushed skull fragments into the young man’s brain, and he died later that night.

Rather than using a prop gun for the play, a vice principal had authorized the use of the real gun with blanks, court papers say, with ground rules drawn up by the school resource officer. The ground rules, among other things, required the gun’s owner to transport it to and from school and only allowed an adult to fire it for the performance. But the lawsuit filed by Thayer’s parents claims the rules were flouted, and that Thayer had been allowed to handle and fire the weapon during rehearsals.

Thayer’s family filed a lawsuit against the Washington County district and other parties in federal district court raising federal civil rights claims as well as state law negligence claims. Some claims have been settled, such as one against the father who had supplied the .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver, the Salt Lake Tribune reports.

In February, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson of Salt Lake City threw out the Thayers’ claim against School Resource Officer Stacy Richan, who had developed the ground rules for handling the gun at school. The judge said the officer had not created the danger and had implemented rules meant to lessen the risks. The officer’s conduct fell short “of the kind of action that truly shocks the conscience,” the judge said.

Separately, the federal judge certified a question to the Utah Supreme Court about whether the school district could assert immunity to the Thayer’s suit under a state governmental-immunity statute. In its May 25 decision in Thayer v. Washington County School District, the state high court ruled 3-2 that the district was not immune based on a provision of the state law dealing with licenses and permissions.

The school district argued that the licensing exception applied to the case because Thayer’s death arose out of the vice principal’s and the school resource officer’s issuance of a “permission” for the gun to be used at school. The Thayers argued that the licensing exception is meant to apply to official government licensing decisions, not to negligent actions by officials.

“A governmental entity such as the school district may not insulate itself from suit by routinely authorizing and approving the negligent conduct of its employees,” the majority said.

The dissenters said there were too many facts still in dispute in the case to determine whether the school district was immune under the licensing exception.

Hat Tip to How Appealing for the Utah Supreme Court decision.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.