Wednesday, May 18, 2016
School District Not Liable for Bullied Student’s Suicide—C.A.
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Glendale Unified School District bears no liability in the death of a high school student who killed himself after being bullied, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Div. Four, in an unpublished opinion by Justice Audrey Collins, said there was no substantial evidence that the district’s negligence was the proximate cause of Drew Ferraro’s death.
Ferraro killed himself on the Crescenta Valley High School student campus in February 2012 when he was 15 years old. He climbed a tree to reach the roof of a three-story building, took a running start, and jumped.
His parents—John and Deanna Ferraro—said in their complaint that Drew was bullied, almost from the time he entered the school in the fall of 2010, because he was short, dressed in a “non-conforming” manner, and suffered from a major depressive disorder. The bullying took the form of text messages, physical altercations, and posting on social media, the parents said.
The district, they claimed, took no action in response to complaints by them, by Drew, and by his sister, and made matters worse when they suspended Drew for a week in May 2011 after he was forced to fight back “for his own survival.” Matters deteriorated from there, the parents said, as Drew’s anxiety attacks became worse, his interest in school and academic performance waned, and he was suspended from the football team.
The district, however, argued that there had been no complaints or evidence of harassment or bullying in the 10 months since the suspension, and that although the plaintiffs produced four suicide notes, there was no evidence as to when they had been written,
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Stewart granted the district’s motion for summary judgment, saying he saw no evidence to support the plaintiffs’ causation argument. He rejected the opinion of the plaintiffs’ psychiatric expert, Dr. Carole Lieberman, that Drew had no plan to kill himself until “one taunt too many” during his English class “sent him bolting out of the classroom, and up to the roof, where he jumped to his death.”
Although the plaintiffs argued that there would have been no reason for Drew to attend his early classes that day if he was planning to kill himself, Stewart said there was no evidence, other than inadmissible hearsay, that Drew was taunted that day. And even if he was, the judge said, there was still no factual basis for the expert’s opinion connecting any such taunt to Drew’s “suicidal ideation.”
Collins, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the trial judge was correct in his characterization of Lieberman’s testimony, which the justice said “lacked foundation, assumed facts not in evidence, and [was] based on unreliable hearsay and speculation.”
To establish a causal link between negligence and suicide, Collins noted, the plaintiff must, under Tate v. Canonica (1960) 180 Cal.App.2d 898, show that it was the defendant’s actions or failures to act that caused the decedent to suffer from an “uncontrollable suicidal impulse.”
The jurist said there was no evidence, apart from the psychiatrist’s inadmissible opinions, to connect Drew’s immaturity and vulnerability, his depression, and the school district’s inadequate response to the bullying to the impulse that drove him to suicide.
An attorney for the Ferraros, Stanley P. Lieber of Lieber Williams & Labin, said he did not know whether they would seek Supreme Court review. The decision, he said, is “really hard to take.”
He acknowledged that causation can be very difficult to prove under the Tate standard, but said he “thought it was clear” in this particular case. “Obviously, the court didn’t agree.”
An attorney for the district, Dominic Quiller of McCune & Harber, said in an email:
“It is truly unfortunate that Drew Ferraro decided to commit suicide. However, the Glendale Unified School District has always, and will continue, to take all forms of bullying, harassment, and violence seriously as it did with Drew Ferraro.
The recent appellate opinion confirmed the vindication of the Glendale Unified School District by the trial court, in that the Glendale Unified School District was not responsible for Drew Ferraro’s decision to commit suicide, and that the District acted with due diligence in response to any and all reports made to the District by Drew Ferraro and his family about alleged harassment.
We truly hope that the appellate court’s decision will provide Drew’s parents closure.”
The case is Ferraro v. Glendale Unified School District, B262428.
Copyright 2016, Metropolitan News Company