The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled a Forsyth County science teacher is not liable in an experiment that injured one of her students.
The high court made a 4-3 decision Monday in Patricia Grammens’ case, which held that the State Appellate Court erred in reversing a Forsyth County State Court judge’s decision in her favor.
John Dollar, the father of the injured eighth-grader, filed suit in 2006 against Grammens and other school officials for negligence.
The student, David Dollar, was hurt in May 2004 during an experiment at South Forsyth Middle School.
“We were obviously very disappointed in the decision, but plan on asking the court to reconsider,” said Jim Blitch, Dollar’s attorney.
Grammens’ attorney could not be reached for comment.
David Dollar’s right eye was injured in the experiment, court documents show, and none of the four surgeries he had by the time the complaint was filed had restored his eye to its condition before the incident.
The lawsuit indicated that Dollar, who was 14 at the time, likely will suffer from the injury for the rest of his life.
Court records show neither the students nor Grammens wore goggles or any other type of eye protection during the experiment.
The Appeals Court determined that a board of education policy, which followed state law, requiring students to wear protective eye devices applied to the experiment.
However, Grammens’ lawyers held that the court was wrong to make such a determination because there were no explosive materials involved, just air and water.
The Georgia Supreme Court’s decision held that the ministerial duty requiring the use of eye protection during the experiment was contingent upon the use of caustic or explosive materials.
Public employees, including teachers, can be held responsible for ministerial acts, which are defined as simple, absolute and definite and require the execution of a specific duty.
“Because the written policy did not define the term ‘explosive materials’ the policy required the instructor to engage in a discretionary act,” the court ruled.
Discretionary acts, according to the Supreme Court’s ruling, require someone’s “deliberation and judgment, and a response that is not specifically directed.”
State law gives public employees immunity from being held personally liable for discretionary acts.
Forsyth County State Court Judge Phillip Smith dismissed the lawsuits on the basis that all of the defendants — Grammens, former South Forsyth Middle School Principal Deborah Sarver, the local school board and then Superintendent Paula Gault — were acting in a discretionary capacity. Sarver and Grammens currently work at Lakeside Middle School and Gault retired in 2007.
While the Appeals Court upheld Smith’s decisions for Gault, Sarver and the board, it ruled that Grammens’ failure to require the students to use eye protection was a violation of ministerial duty.
According to court documents, Grammens found the experiment on a NASA website.
It used air pressure to launch a plastic bottle like a rocket. The launcher used a metal pin to hold down the bottle’s neck until enough pressure had built up to send it flying through the air.
She allowed Dollar to pull a string that was part of the launching mechanism. On his second attempt to make the experiment work, a metal pin flew into Dollar’s eye.