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State-Agent Immunity - School Bus Driver

Edwards v. Pearson, [Ms. 1180801, May 22, 2020] __ So. 3d __ (Ala. 2020). The Court (Stewart, J.; Bolin, Wise, and Sellers, JJ., concur; Parker, C.J., concurs in the result) affirms the Elmore Circuit Court’s summary judgment for school bus driver Penny Pearson based on grounds of state-agent immunity. Raven Edwards, an eight-year-old child, who missed the bus at her designated stop, was killed by oncoming traffic as she ran to the bus as it approached a stop sign across from her home.

The plaintiff argued that because school bus stops are set by the board of education, in making the unscheduled stop at the intersection when she observed Raven running from her home, Pearson was not performing her duties as a bus driver. The Court rejected this argument holding that “there can be no question but that Pearson was performing her duties as a bus driver in supervising students when she stopped the school bus and exited the bus.” Ms. *17.

The burden thus shifted to plaintiff to demonstrate that Pearson “‘act[ed] willfully, maliciously, fraudulently, in bad faith, beyond his or her authority, or under a mistaken interpretation of the law.’” Ex parte Cranman, 792 So. 2d 392, 405 (Ala. 2000). Ms. *17. The Court affirmed the summary judgment, holding

“Pearson established that she was justified to stop the school bus at the intersection because she feared that Raven would cross the highway; it is undisputed that this is precisely what happened before Pearson could exit the bus. Nothing in the State handbook or the Elmore County handbook addressed what course of action a school-bus driver must take if the bus driver observes a student approaching a busy highway and the driver believes the student is in imminent danger. This is precisely the type of situation that requires an exercise of discretion, based on the circumstances as they are known to the school-bus driver at that time. As we have previously explained:

‘State-agent immunity protects agents of the State in their exercise of discretion in educating [and supervising] students. We will not second-guess their decisions.’ Ex parte Blankenship, 806 So. 2d 1186, 1190 (Ala. 2000).”

Ms. *21.

The Court rejected Edwards’s argument, raised for the first time in her reply brief, that Pearson violated standards in employee handbooks. Ms. *22. The Court also noted that “Edwards did not submit with her response to Pearson’s summary-judgment motion the full text of the handbooks, which would aid this Court in determining whether the rules in the handbooks were intended to be mandatory and whether they were applicable at the time of the accident.” Ms. *22, n. 1. Thus, even if timely raised on appeal, the handbook argument would have failed on the merits.

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