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Christensen v. Royal School District No. 160

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Defendant teacher sexually abused Plaintiff middle school student.  Plaintiff sued for negligence and the teacher and school district claimed contributory fault on Plaintiff’s part.  The court did not permit a contributory fault defense in this case.

    Facts. Thirteen year old Plaintiff Christensen engaged in sexual activity with Defendant Diaz, her 26 year old middle school teacher.  Plaintiff and her parents sued Defendant, as well as the principal and school district, alleging negligent hiring and supervision.  Defendants asserted an affirmative defense of Plaintiff’s contributory fault for voluntary participation in the sexual relationship.  The trial court certified the question to the Washington Supreme Court of whether contributory fault could be assessed against a 13 year old victim of sexual abuse for her participation in the relationship.

    Issue. Whether contributory fault could be assessed against a 13 year old victim of sexual abuse for her participation in the relationship.

    Held.  No.  Even though Washington courts have a long history of applying contributory fault to children in some instances, the same should not be applied in cases of sexual abuse, as public policy is directed to protecting children from such abuse.  Moreover, a school has a “special relationship†with students and a duty to protect them from reasonably anticipated dangers.  Thus, children do not have a duty to protect themselves from sexual abuse by their teachers.  However, the school is not precluded from claiming that it is not negligent because Plaintiff lied about the relationship upon questioning, thereby thwarting the school’s efforts to ascertain if Plaintiff was being abused.  At least one judge dissented, arguing that although a student is below the age of consent, she is not below the age of honesty.  She should not be permitted to take advantage of a school’s duty to protect by forcing it to pay damages for injuries invited by the student.

    Discussion. This decision highlights that the affirmative defense of comparative fault may be applied to children in instances where they are engaging in adult activities and where there is no public policy reason to preclude its application.  In the case of sexual abuse such as this, however, any court would be hard pressed to hold that a child has a duty to prevent sexual abuse from occurring, as there are strong policy considerations aga.


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