School Not Liable For Host Family Actions Due To Lack Of Relationship Between School And Host Family

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Dec 22, 2023

The Heights is a private, independent day school for boys in third through twelfth grade. Plaintiffs, the Gomez family, are citizens and residents of Spain.  In April 2012, nine-year-old C.G. traveled to the United States to participate in an exchange program at the Heights.  The Heights arranged for C.G. to stay with a host, Theodore Nealson Smart, while in the program.

While living with Smart, C.G. slept in the same room as Smart’s youngest son, who abused C.G.  C.G. suffered physical and lasting psychological injuries as a result.  Smart was criminally prosecuted and then acquitted of all charges after a jury trial.

In December 2022, Plaintiffs filed a suit against Smart and the Heights.  The case against the School alleges claims of negligence based on the theory that the Heights was the school sponsoring the program and bears legal responsibility for C.G.’s injuries.

To establish a claim of negligence the plaintiff must show: (1) the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty; (2) the defendant breached that duty; (3) the plaintiff suffered an injury; and (4) the breach proximately caused the injury.

The family argued that the School owed a duty to them through Smart, as the employee, agent, and servant of the Heights.  The School argued that it did not owe a duty of care to the Plaintiffs.

The Court determined that no such duty existed.  C.G. came to the United States as part of an exchange program at the Heights, and the Heights arranged for C.G. to stay with Smart.  However, the family did not state when, how, where, and under what conditions such an arrangement was made.  For example, the family’s complaint did not describe whether Smart was a paid employee, an independent contractor, or a volunteer.  The complaint did not describe whether Smart was required to follow the Height’s directives, or whether the Heights had the ability to control how Smart executed his duties as a host.

The family also argued that the Heights stood in loco parentis for the students and that the Heights assumed a primary role in the protection of C.G.  The Court concluded that the family did not show facts in their complaint that supported these allegations.  The Court concluded that while the Heights arranged for C.G. to live with Smart while in the exchange program, there are no other facts about the relationship between Smart and the School.

Gomez v. Heights Sch. (D.Md. Nov. 1, 2023) 2023 U.S.Dist.LEXIS 195728.

Note: This case was dismissed due to insufficient pleadings and lack of relationship between the host placement and the school.  However, schools should be aware that host families can be a source of significant liability for schools, especially if schools do not properly screen or vet the host families.   

View More News

Private Education Matters
New Laws In Effect January 1, 2024
Private Education Matters
Four Things To Consider When Presented With An AIA Contract