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Griffin v. Cheverus High School of Portland

Superior Court of Maine, Cumberland

June 20, 2018

JOHN GRIFFIN, individually, and as next friend and parent of PATRICK GRIFFIN, a minor, and DEVDRA GRIFFIN, individually, and as next friend and parent of PATRICK GRIFFIN, a minor, Plaintiffs
v.
CHEVERUS HIGH SCHOOL OF PORTLAND, and SU-ANNE HAMMOND, individually and as next friend and parent of JAKOB HAMMOND, a minor, and ANDREW HAMMOND, individually, and as next friend and parent of JAKOB HAMMOND, a minor, and JOHN/JANE DOES 1-5, Defendants.

          ORDER ON HAMMOND DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Lance E. Walker, Justice Maine Superior Court

         Before the Court is Defendants Andrew, Su-Anne, and Jakob Hammond's motion for partial summary judgment. Plaintiffs have opposed this motion. The Court has considered the parties' filings, and for the following reasons, the motion is granted.

         I. Background

         The following facts are not in dispute except where otherwise noted. In May 2016, Plaintiff Patrick Griffin ("Patrick") was enrolled in the 10th grade, and Defendant Jakob Hammond ("Jakob") was enrolled in the 11th grade at Cheverus High School. (Defs.' S.M.F. ¶ 1.) Around 4:00 p.m. on May 18, 2016, Patrick and Jakob were on Cheverus's campus watching a javelin event with Meaghan Collins, Terryn MacDonald, and Matthew Thornton. (Id. ¶¶ 2-3.) The five teenagers left the athletic field and headed toward the school, at which point Patrick and Jakob became engaged in a physical activity. (Id. ¶ 5.) Although the exact nature of that activity remains in dispute, it is uncontested that when Jakob let go of Patrick, Patrick fell to the ground and struck his head. (See id. ¶ 7.)

         Defendants Andrew Hammond ("Andrew") and Su-Anne Hammond ("Su-Anne") are Jakob's parents. (Id. ¶ 14.) Neither Andrew nor Su-Anne were present at Cheverus before or during the May 18, 2017 incident between Jakob and Patrick, nor did they have prior knowledge that Jakob would be engaged in physical horseplay with Patrick that day. (Id. ¶¶ 15-16.) Prior to that date, Andrew and Su-Anne had no knowledge of any violent tendencies belonging to Jakob.[1](Id. ¶ 17.) At the time of the incident, Jakob was taking a medication called Fluoxetine and seeing a counselor for depression. (Pis.' A.S.M.F. ¶¶ 44-45, 48-50.)

         Plaintiffs filed their Complaint on December 15, 2016, bringing counts for, inter alia, negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress against Andrew, Su-Anne, and Jakob. With this motion, the Hammond defendants request summary judgment on Counts III, IV, and VIII of Plaintiffs' Complaint to the extent they state a cause of action against Andrew and Su-Anne for negligent infliction of emotional distress. Defendants further request summary judgment on Counts I and VIII to the extent they state a cause of action against Jakob for negligent infliction of emotional distress upon John and Devdra Griffin. Finally, Defendants request summary judgment on Counts III, IV, and VIII to the extent they state a cause of action against Andrew and Su-Anne for negligence.

         II. Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is appropriate if, based on the parties' statements of material facts and the cited record, there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. M.R. Civ. P. 56(c); Dyer v. Dep't of Tramp., 2008 ME 106, ¶ 14, 951 A.2d 821. "A material fact is one that can affect the outcome of the case. A genuine issue of material fact exists when the factfinder must choose between competing versions of the truth." Dyer, 2008 ME 106, ¶ 14, 951 A.2d 821 (internal citation and quotation marks omitted). When deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court reviews the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Id.

         If the moving party's motion for summary judgment is properly supported, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party to respond with specific facts indicating a genuine issue for trial in order to avoid summary judgment. M.R. Civ. P. 56(e). When a defendant moves for summary judgment, the plaintiff must respond with evidence establishing a prima facie case. Watt v. UniFirst Corp., 2009 ME 47, ¶ 21, 969 A.2d 897. The evidence proffered by the plaintiff "need not be persuasive at that stage, but the evidence must be sufficient to allow a fact-finder to make a factual determination without speculating." Estate of Smith v. Cumberland Cnty., 2013 ME 13, ¶ 19, 60 A.3d 759. If a plaintiff fails to present sufficient evidence, then the defendant is entitled to summary judgment. Watt, 2009 ME 47, ¶ 21, 969 A.2d 897.

         III. Discussion

         A. Counts I, III, IV, and VIII: Negligent infliction of emotional distress

         Like a claim for general negligence, a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress requires a plaintiff to set forth facts showing that the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff, the defendant breached that duty, the plaintiff was harmed, and the breach caused the plaintiffs harm. Curtis v. Porter, 2001 ME 158, ¶ 18, 784 A.2d 18. However, duty is particularly limited in negligent infliction claims because "[a]lthough each person has a duty to act reasonably to avoid causing physical harm to others, there is no analogous general duty to avoid negligently causing emotional harm to others." Id. A duty to act reasonably to avoid emotional harm to others has only been recognized in bystander liability actions; when there is a special relationship between the defendant and the plaintiff; or, in limited instances, when the defendant has committed another tort that allows for the recovery of emotional distress damages. See id. ¶ 19.

         The Hammond defendants argue they are not liable to John Griffin ("John") and Devdra Griffin ("Devdra") for negligent infliction of emotional distress because John and Devdra have not alleged bystander liability, the existence of a special relationship between the parties, or an independent tort that provides a proper basis for recovery. Plaintiffs concede they have not brought a claim based on bystander liability, and they do not argue that any of the Hammonds have a special relationship with any of the Griffins giving rise to a duty to avoid emotionally harming them.

         As to Andrew and Su-Anne, Plaintiffs argue their negligence claims in Counts III and IV are independent torts upon which their claims for negligent infliction of emotional distress are premised. The Law Court has stated that a tort is not independent of a negligent infliction claim when damages for emotional suffering are available under the tort, as the negligent infliction claim is usually subsumed under any award entered on the separate tort.[2]See id. Such is the case here. Because damages for emotional suffering are available in a negligence action, this tort is not independent of a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress; thus, the negligence claims against Andrew and Su-Anne do not provide a basis for claims ...


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