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Grant-Walton v. Montgomery County Board of Education

United States District Court, D. Maryland

May 30, 2018

GEORGIA GRANT-WALTON, Personal Representative to the Estate of Taylor Walton, Plaintiff,
v.
MONTGOMERY COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, KAREN PHILBIN and JEFFREY RABBERMAN, Defendants.[1]

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          THEODORE D. CHUANG, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Georgia Grant-Walton ("Plaintiff), in her capacity as the personal representative to the estate of her daughter, Taylor Walton ("Walton"), has brought this action against the Board of Education of Montgomery County, Maryland and two physical education teachers at Gaithersburg High School, Karen Philbin and Jeffrey Rabberman ("the Individual Defendants"), alleging gross negligence; negligent selection, hiring, training, and supervision; a common law survivor action; and a claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for a violation of Walton's rights under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Presently pending before the Court is the Individual Defendants' Motion for Partial Dismissal. Having reviewed the submitted materials, the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. See D. Md. Local R. 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         BACKGROUND

         Walton, a minor at the time of the relevant events, was a student at Gaithersburg High School ("GHS") in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Walton suffered from asthma, an inflammatory disease of the airway which can be exacerbated by air pollutants or exercise. Asthma can result in an anaphylactic reaction causing swelling of the membranes lining the airway which, if not immediately treated through the use of an inhaler, can result in death. When Walton was first enrolled at GHS in August 2015, school officials were informed of Walton's asthma, and each of her teachers received a copy of her emergency treatment plan.

         In October 2015, Walton suffered an anaphylactic reaction, also known as an asthma attack, while in her physical education class, in the presence of "her Gym Teacher." Am. Compl. ¶ 12, ECF No. 12. Walton was able to control the attack through the use of her inhaler.

         On November 30, 2015, Walton experienced another asthma attack in her gym class, taught by Philbin. Walton informed Philbin that she was having trouble breathing as a result of the attack and requested permission to leave the class to retrieve her inhaler from her gym locker. Philbin denied the request. A short time later, Walton informed Philbin that her breathing difficulties were continuing and again requested permission to get her inhaler. Philbin again denied the request. Finally, in the midst of severe breathing difficulties, Walton told Philbin that she was leaving class to get her inhaler. Although both Philbin and Rabberman, who was also present, observed Walton leave the gymnasium, neither teacher went with her to get the inhaler or instructed another student to accompany Walton.

         Walton was found unconscious on the floor outside the gymnasium by an unnamed school employee. That employee notified a school nurse, who began administering artificial respiration to Walton and called for emergency medical personnel. All attempts to revive Walton were unsuccessful. She was pronounced dead at Shady Grove Hospital later that day.

         DISCUSSION

         In their Motion to Dismiss, the Individual Defendants argue that Plaintiff has failed to state plausible claims against Philbin or Rabberman of (1) gross negligence (Count I); and (2) a violation of Walton's Fourth Amendment rights (Count III).

         I. Legal Standard

         The Motion seeks dismissal for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). To defeat a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the complaint must allege enough facts to state a plausible claim for relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). A claim is plausible when the facts pleaded allow "the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. Legal conclusions or conclusory statements do not suffice. Id. The Court must examine the complaint as a whole, consider the factual allegations in the complaint as true, and construe the factual allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 268 (1994); Lambeth v. Bd. of Comm'rs of Davidson Cty., 407 F.3d 266, 268 (4th Cir. 2005).

         II. Gross Negligence

         Count I asserts a claim against the Individual Defendants for gross negligence based on their alleged failure to allow Walton to leave the gymnasium or otherwise assist her during the medical emergency. Under Maryland law, gross negligence is "something more than simple negligence, and likely more akin to reckless conduct." Barbre v. Pope, 935 A.2d 699, 717 (Md. 2007) (quoting Taylor v. Harford Cty. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 862 A.2d 1026, 1035 (Md. 2004)). It is "an intentional failure to perform a manifest duty in reckless disregard of the consequences as affecting the life or property of another, and also implies a thoughtless disregard of the consequences without the exertion of any effort to avoid them." Barbre, 935 A.2d at 717 (quoting Liscombe v. Potomac Edison Co., 495 A.2d 838, 846 (Md. 1985)). An individual acts with gross negligence when that person "inflicts injury intentionally or is so utterly indifferent to the rights of others that he acts as if such rights did not exist." Id. Under this standard, courts have found gross negligence adequately pleaded in cases in which a plaintiff has alleged that a defendant has displayed utter indifference or thoughtless disregard to the rights of others by failing to take certain actions to address clear warning signs so as to prevent the harm. See, e.g., Doe v. Bd. of Educ. of Prince George's Cty., 888 F.Supp.2d 659, 669-70 (D. Md. 2012) (finding that allegations that the defendant school district was aware that a classmate repeatedly engaged in sexual harassment of the plaintiff, refused to act in response to the plaintiffs complaints, and assigned the classmate to the plaintiffs classroom the following school year stated a cognizable claim for gross negligence).

         Viewing the allegations in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, as is required at this stage, the Court finds that Plaintiff has sufficiently alleged a claim of gross negligence against the Individual Defendants. Here, Walton had asthma, a condition known to lead to severe breathing difficulties that could result in death, and GHS officials and Walton's teachers, including Philbin and Rabberman, had been made aware of her condition to the point that there was an emergency treatment plan to be implemented in the event of an asthma attack. She had previously suffered an asthma attack in the presence of her gym teacher that was controlled by an inhaler. Despite having this knowledge, Philbin refused two specific requests by Walton to leave class to get her inhaler to address breathing difficulties. When Walton then informed her that she was going to leave to get it, neither Philbin nor Rabberman took any steps to ensure that she was able to retrieve it and alleviate her distress. The fact that Walton was then found unconscious near the gymnasium shortly after leaving the class supports an inference that her condition was so severe that her ...


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