BARBARA HOWARD: Massachusetts public schools cannot be held liable for injuries suffered by students as a result of bullying. That is the ruling from the state’s highest court this week. The Supreme Judicial Court’s decision came in the case of Matthew Mumbauer. In 2008, he was 11 years old, a student at the Brickett Elementary School in Lynn. A fellow student who allegedly had been bullying him for years pushed him down a flight of stairs, paralyzing him for life. With us on the line to talk about this case is Northeastern University Law Professor and WGBH News Legal Analyst Daniel Medwed. Hi, Daniel.


HOWARD: So Mumbauer’s family, it sued the city of Lynn and the school district there, including the teacher, the principal, seeking damages. But the SJC points out that the state’s public schools are somehow protected from financial liability when it comes to bullying. The court, though, did also find that those defendants, the teacher, principal, school district, the city of Lynn, should have done more to protect Matthew Mumbauer — that they were negligent. And yet they still ruled that those defendants are not liable. And how is that?

MEDWED: This decision by the SJC wasn’t about the merits of the negligence action, but rather about the interpretation of an act known as the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act of 1978. What this law does is it allows negligent suits against employees of public agencies, but has some statutory exceptions. And one of those exceptions is that you can’t bring a negligence suit against a public employee for the failure to act to prevent a third-party from causing harm unless that harm was originally caused by the public agency. So the idea here is that the child who committed the act of bullying, he was a third party, and therefore that the public school should be immune from tort liability — personal injury civil liability.

HOWARD: Well, now the family of Matthew Mumbauer — do they have any other legal options at this point?

MEDWED: At this point it’s not clear. They may have other options, but not necessarily under a traditional tort action. A tort action is, as I indicated briefly before, a personal injury lawsuit where you’re claiming negligence. They would have to come up with some other theory in order to circumvent this clear statutory prohibition.

HOWARD: Well you know, with this case, does it somehow make schools a little less likely to be strict when it comes to enforcing anti-bullying measures?

MEDWED: Well that’s the concern, and reading between the lines in this very thoughtful opinion by Justice Kimberly Budd, it seemed as though the justice was hinting that maybe the legislature should reconsider some of the statutory exceptions to the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, in part because of concerns about bullying. I’m just reading between the lines here, it wasn’t explicit. But it seemed pretty darn clear that this was an interpretation of Massachusetts law, and the rationale for this rule, I think, is that the state wants to discourage a torrent of lawsuits against public employees that could distract public employees from their work and could be really problematic for the state in terms of money. The downside of that, of course, is that maybe some plaintiffs like the Mumbauer family might not have the vindication and redress that they want and perhaps deserve.

HOWARD: Okay, thanks so much for joining us, Daniel.

MEDWED: My pleasure, Barbara.

HOWARD: That's Northeastern University Law Professor and WGBH News Legal Analyst Daniel Medwed. He's explaining the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's ruling this week that the state's public schools cannot be held financially liable for injuries students suffer from bullying