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Tort/Negligence – Schools & School Boards – School Bus Route – Subject Matter Jurisdiction

Tort/Negligence – Schools & School Boards – School Bus Route – Subject Matter Jurisdiction

The Tort Claims Act gives the Industrial Commission jurisdiction over claims involving school bus maintenance and operation but not claims involving the design of school bus routes. The latter claims may be brought in superior court if the school system has waived its governmental immunity by purchasing insurance.

We reverse the Commission’s ruling that it has jurisdiction over plaintiffs’ claims against the school system officials who designed the bus route that required plaintiffs’ decedent to cross a highway to get to her bus stop (before the bus turned around and drove right by her house).

G.S. § 143-300.1 of the Tort Claims Act provides in part, “(a) The North Carolina Industrial Commission shall have jurisdiction to hear and determine tort claims against any county board of education or any city board of education, which claims arise as a result of any alleged mechanical defects or other defects which may affect the safe operation of a public school bus or school transportation service vehicle resulting from an alleged negligent act of maintenance personnel or as a result of any alleged negligent act or omission of the driver, transportation safety assistant, or monitor of a public school bus or school transportation service vehicle. . . .”

Pursuant to G.S. § 115C-42, local school boards can elect to waive their governmental immunity from tort actions in North Carolina’s superior courts by purchasing liability insurance, “[p]rovided, that this section shall not apply to claims for damages caused by the negligent acts or torts of public school bus, or school transportation service vehicle drivers, while driving school buses and school transportation service vehicles when the operation of such school buses and service vehicles is paid from the State Public School Fund.”

As a result of these statutes, two principles are apparent: (1) the governmental immunity of local school boards no longer exists for claims falling within § 143-300.1 and such claims must be brought in the Industrial Commission; and (2) all other tort claims against school boards not similarly covered by the Tort Claims Act are barred unless the school board has opted to purchase liability insurance that provides coverage for the specific claim being asserted, and in such cases the claim must be brought in superior court.

The parties submit that confusion exists within the bench and bar as to the proper scope of the Industrial Commission’s jurisdiction over administrative negligence claims in connection with the operation of school buses. However, Huff v. Northampton County Board of Education, 259 N.C. 75, 130 S.E.2d 26 (1963), makes clear that the Industrial Commission lacks jurisdiction over any claims other than those falling within the express language of § 143-300.1, meaning that the types of administrative claims asserted by plaintiffs here cannot be brought in the Industrial Commission under the Tort Claims Act.

Although Stacy v. Merrill, 191 N.C. App. 131, 664 S.E.2d 565 (2008), reaches the opposite result, where a prior ruling of this court is in conflict with binding Supreme Court precedent, we must follow the decision of the Supreme Court rather than that of our own court. Accordingly, we are compelled to follow Huff instead of Stacy because Huff is a decision from our Supreme Court that has never been overruled.

Reversed and remanded.

Martinez v. Wake County Board of Education (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-105-18, 24 pp.) (Mark Davis, J.) Appealed from the Industrial Commission. Matthew Nis Leerberg and Marie Lang for plaintiffs; Olga Vysotskaya de Brito, Alexander Walton and Christina Hayes for defendant; Sam McGee and T. Shawn Howard for amicus curiae. N.C. App.


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