Damages Upheld for Students Barred From School Bus Because of Body Odor

By Mark Walsh — November 10, 2008 1 min read
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A federal appeals court has upheld a $50,000 damages award to two students who were often suspended from riding their public school bus because the driver objected to their body odor.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, upheld a ruling by a federal magistrate judge that awarded $25,000 each to the two children under Mississippi tort law. The magistrate found that a bus driver for the North Panola, Miss., school district had barred the students from the bus some days and had sprayed or allowed other students to spray deodorizer around the children on other occasions during the 2004-05 school year. On one day, the driver closed the bus door on one of the children, trapping his hand and dragging him for a few feet before the boy could free his hand.

A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit court on Nov. 7 issued this short, unanimous opinion in Turner v. North Panola School District. To learn more of the facts, I had to track down the magistrate judge’s Aug. 14, 2007, opinion. (It isn’t available for free on the Web, but it is available on the PACER system of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi.)

The children’s parents complained to school officials repeatedly about the bus driver’s conduct, according to court papers. The judge noted that the parents did not dispute that their children had an odor problem. One source of the problem was a severe case of athlete’s foot, and the family could not afford appropriate medical care, according to court papers.

Only near the end of the school year did administrators order that the children’s bus privileges be restored, and the district ordered a school nurse to visit the family to discuss personal hygiene.

The family filed a lawsuit against the district and school officials raising federal constitutional and state tort issues. A jury ruled for the defendants on the federal issues. But the magistrate judge ruled for the two children on the state law claims, holding that that school administrators’ negligence led to the children missing school and showing signs of depression.

The district administration “did not adequately supervise its employees, and thereby deprived the students of a safe school environment,” the judge said.

The 5th Circuit panel said it was affirming “for the reasons assigned in the magistrate judge’s able opinion.”

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