May 28, 2008
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION
This case arises out of injuries allegedly suffered by a student when a teacher pushed him off his hand. The teacher had reached for an item the plaintiff and other students were playing with at the end of class.
The case was removed from the jury and tried to the court in November of 2007. Argument was held in February 2008. Ronald Vece, Jr. was a student at Amity at the time of the incident on May 13, 2003. He basically claims a teacher used excessive and unwarranted force against him in a classroom at the school. Other parties were sued but at the time of trial, the only defendant was Thomas Snyder, the teacher. The following counts were outstanding against Mr. Snyder (1) intentional assault; (2) reckless assault; (3) negligent assault; (4) negligent risk of injury; (5) intentional infliction of emotional distress; (6) negligent infliction of emotional distress.
All of the claims turn on whether the force used in this case was reasonable. Oddly enough, the defense appears to assert the defense of reasonable force by reference to § 53a-18 of the General Statutes. Subsection (6) in general terms describes the circumstances under which a teacher may use force on a minor entrusted to his or her care and supervision. But this statute is prefaced by the following language:
The use of physical force upon another person which would otherwise constitute an offense is justifiable and not criminal under any of the following circumstances.
Various subsections follow, of which subsection (6) is one. The statute obviously has no bearing on civil liability. But at trial, in closing argument and in post-trial briefs, both sides referred to civil common-law cases regarding a teacher's use of force and when and under what circumstances it would not constitute a basis of liability. The court will discuss this law in a moment. But first, the court will briefly refer to the evidence presented at trial. Ronald Vece, Jr. testified as did his father, Mr. Ronald Vece. The defendant, Thomas Snyder, testified as did Carol Brown, the class paraprofessional, who is now Carol Kavanaugh. The police investigated this matter and the police investigation containing statements from Vece, Jr., Snyder, Brown and students who witnessed the incident was introduced into evidence as an exhibit without objection. It contains hearsay statements. Tait's Handbook of Connecticut Evidence, Tait Prescott, 4th ed. at § 8.2.4 pp. 461 sums up the law in such a situation in a concise fashion:
Hearsay evidence admitted without objection, if believed by the trier, is a sufficient basis for a finding of fact. DeGroat v. DeGroat, 171 Conn. 363 (1976). But hearsay admitted without objection is subject to any infirmities due to any inherent weakness, and a trier cannot rely on hearsay lacking a rational probative force. Marshall v. Kleinman, 186 Conn. 67, 72 . . .
The defendant also introduced into evidence the response of Ronald Vece, Jr. and his mother to interrogatories and requests for production.
Where a student sues a teacher for the improper application of force against him or her, the defense often raised is that application of that force was reasonable. The Connecticut cases discussing this legal issue involve situations where a teacher uses force or corporal punishment to discipline an unruly student. This is not exactly the case here, as will be discussed, but the language of the cases is relevant to the issues raised by this case.
The court, in Andereozzi v. Rubarro, 145 Conn. 280 (1958) said that: "A teacher stands in loco parentis toward a pupil. He must maintain discipline and if a pupil disobeys his orders, it is his duty to use reasonable means to compel compliance . . . Whether the means taken by a teacher to enforce discipline are reasonable presents a question of fact under all the circumstances." Id., page 282. The court went on to find that "the defendant (teacher) acted, not for the purpose of inflicting punishment, but to restore order and discipline. It is manifest from all the facts and circumstances that unless the defendant had taken prompt and effective action in face of the plaintiff's sudden and violent outburst, he would have been humiliated in the eyes of the pupils and the order and discipline of the school would have been seriously affected."
In a case involving the infliction of punishment, the court, in Calway v. Williamson, 130 Conn. 575 (1944), the court discussed the various factors that must be taken into account and the fact that reasonable people could differ on the force used. It went on to say:
On account of this difference of opinion, and the difficulty which exists in determining what is reasonable punishment, and the advantage which the master has by being on the spot to know all the circumstances, the manner, look, tone, gestures and language of the offender (which are not always easily described), and thus to form a correct opinion as to the necessity and extent of the punishment, considerable allowance should be made to the teacher by way of protecting him in the exercise of his discretion. Especially should he have this indulgence when he appears to have acted from good motives and not from anger or malice . . . But if there is any reasonable doubt whether the punishment was excessive, the master should have the benefit of the doubt. Id., pp. 579-80 (quoting from Vermont case)
Similarly, Sansone v. Bechtel, 180 Conn. 96 (1980) at p. 98 said: "In evaluating the necessity and extent of punishment, considerable allowance should be made to the teacher to protect him in the exercise of his discretion."
Also see Restatement (2d) Torts, Sections 147-55 "Privilege to Discipline Children," Sections 147 to 155; Calway v. Williamson, 130 Conn. at page 580 cited Section 148, now Section 150 which discusses "Factors Involved in Determining Reasonableness of Punishment." As noted previously, much of the commentary and cases involve punishment cases but the same or similar considerations apply in situations where the teacher allegedly acts to enforce discipline or order.
The court will try to apply the foregoing general principles to the facts of this case. There seems to be no dispute about many of the facts and circumstances immediately preceding this incident. Vece, Jr. was assigned to a special education class taught by the defendant Snyder. There were seven students in the class. Snyder was the teacher and he had a paraprofessional assisting him on the day of this incident, May 13, 2003. Her name was then Carol Boone, she is now Carol Cavanaugh. The special education class was started in September 2001 and Snyder described the need for such a class to try to help students "not taking care of business academically and acting out considerably in class." The plaintiff had a type of learning disability where there is no problem with intellectual functioning but when he hears an auditory communication the direction to act in response to the communication is broken. Snyder knew this and was aware of the fact that multi channels must be accessed to reach such a child.
Turning to the factual background that led to this May 13, 2003 incident, Vece, Jr. and other students began throwing something around the classroom area next to the door exiting to the hallway. It was a substance called play dough and could bounce. The classroom area where this occurred was separated from the rest of the room by a divider. The youngsters were engaging in this activity just prior to the bell for the next class which would require the students to exit Snyder's classroom and go into the hallway to other classrooms.
Ronald Vece, Jr. was the first witness. At the time of the incident he testified that he was fourteen years old. He said he weighed 140 pounds 5'5" tall. He was involved in freshman football and the court assumes he was the same well built, agile youngster when he was fourteen as he appeared to be in court. His father also described his son's athletic involvement at the time of the incident. On May 13, 2003, Ronald Vece, Jr. was, as noted, in a ninth grade special education class at Amity Junior High taking basic courses — Math, English, History — from Mr. Snyder.
Vece, Jr., in his trial testimony, gave a fairly detailed description of the events leading up to his confrontation with Snyder and the acts by Snyder which he says caused his injuries. He says he and other students were playing with a ball of play dough and bouncing it off a wall of the classroom. At one point it was not caught and bounced across the floor. He went to get it and said, "I stepped on it and right around the same time Mr. Snyder came in as I was . . . as I stepped on it and shortly after he came and tried grabbing the ball out from underneath my foot and then grabbed me underneath my leg near my groin area and threw me off the ball." He "kind of lifted" him up. He later said Snyder "grabbed like my knee and underneath my groin or around where my privates are and lifted me up and threw me back a couple of feet." He was thrown back into a table, his back hit the table. Vece, Jr. said he did not see Snyder coming for the play dough, he was focused on the play dough.
Vece, Jr. then says he tried to leave the class but Snyder said he could not leave despite the fact that the bell had rung for his next class. Vece, Jr. also said only two students were in the area when the incident took place. Vece, Jr. also gave a statement to the police after the incident. In the statement he said Snyder put his arm between his legs and on his crotch and launched him six feet across the room.
At the end of his direct, Vece, Jr. added to the events immediately following the incident. He repeated that Snyder did not want him to leave the classroom and tried to prevent him from doing so. When he did leave, Snyder "stalked" him in the hallways and followed him into his next class, an art class.
If Vece, Jr.'s story is to be believed, it would appear that excessive force was used by the defendant teacher who was a wrestling coach and arguably used his knowledge in that area to dislodge Vece Jr.'s foot from his finger. Why would there be a need to place his arm in Vece, Jr.'s crotch area and use such force as to hurl him six feet? That being the case, it would appear that the count for intentional assault would be established. Our state certainly recognizes a tort for civil intentional assault and battery, see Brown v. Robishaw, 282 Conn. 628, 636 (2007); cf Manning v. Michael, 188 Conn. 607, 610, (1982); Hanover v. Coscia, 157 Conn. 49, 51 (1968); Laffin v. Apalucci, 130 Conn. 153, 154 (1943). Interestingly as to the other counts at trial, in post-trial briefs and at oral argument neither counsel went into any detail or made argument on the various elements of the six tort allegations made beyond the assault; they recognized that if Vece, Jr.'s story was not to be believed as to excessive use of force, none of the six tort allegations could be established.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Snyder's version of events differs sharply from that of the young Vece. He said the students were bouncing the play dough off the wall and the cabinets, he said, "yo, that's enough" and went over to pick the ball up, bending over to do so. Vece, Jr. was reaching with his left foot for the play dough and stepped on Snyder's fingers. The play dough got squashed under his index finger according to Snyder. Snyder then said he told Vece, Jr. "That's my finger" and Vece, Jr.'s response was "that's my play dough." Snyder then testified that this "stupid stuff" turned "malicious," as from his perspective, Vece, Jr. put more pressure on this finger, hurting him. He then said, "It hurt and I wasn't going to have it and I just literally, at that point, just swept the inside of his left knee. This "spun him back a little bit." He adamantly denied grabbing his crotch area, his hand did not go above his knee. He "didn't have to. He was off balance. I smacked him off. I just wanted him off my finger."
After he hit his knee, Snyder said Vece, Jr.'s weight from his left foot in effect threw him back. He was off balance and went two hops back. He testified he had no idea how far back Vece, Jr. went but it was "a couple of feet (he) pirouetted back."
If Snyder's version of events is to be believed under previously discussed case law, given his role as teacher and right to maintain order and discipline among his students, Snyder had a right to use a minimum amount of force to free his fingers. The class was about to end, the students were fooling around using the classroom as a play pen. Vece, Jr. had his foot on his finger, other students were present. Should a teacher in this situation just have to wait to see if the horsing around would stop before the bell went off without trying to stop the cause of the horsing around? How on earth could a teacher maintain order and discipline if he did not try to extricate his fingers from under Vece, Jr.'s foot — this is especially so if Vece, Jr. responded the way Snyder said he did when Snyder asked him to remove his foot. According to Snyder's version of what he did, the amount of force he used was very slight; Vece, Jr. only went back a couple of feet.
Even if one were to set aside the accepted rubric about the right of teachers to use reasonable force to maintain order, classic self-defense in civil assault would seem also to apply here. As to that "the permissible degree of force used in self-defense depends on that force which is necessary under all the circumstances to prevent an impending injury." Hanover v. Coscia, supra, 157 Conn. at page 54. Here the pain to Snyder's fingers was not "impending," it was in the process of occurring.
The plaintiff has the burden of proof and even if the foregoing puts both sides of this dispute in equipose, the evidence before the court was not limited to what Vece, Jr. and Snyder had to say. The paraprofessional, Carol Brown testified and, as noted, the police conducted an investigation interviewing several students which the court will identify by first name and the first initial of the last name.
The statement of a Michael T. was particularly damaging to Vece, Jr.'s version of events. He said Snyder went to get the piece of play dough and Vece, Jr. tried to beat him to it. He also told the police the following: "I would like to add that Ron asked me to say that Snyder pushed him off six feet and he (Vece, Jr.) didn't threatening (sic) Snyder but that's not true." In her testimony and her statement to the police, Carol Brown also said when Michael T. came back to the classroom she heard him say, "Wait `til you see what they're cooking up against Snyder." The "they" refers to Vece, Jr. and William S., another student who went to the principal's office after the incident.
There was some attempt to show this youngster had previous problems with Vece, Jr. A year before, he kicked Vece, Jr. in his private parts and they were kicked out of a dance. But then Vece, Jr. said, in response to the court's inquiry, that he remained friendly with Michael T. afterward, "but I never hung out with him outside of school." Also, Vece, Jr., in his statement to the police said that he and this Michael T. left the classroom after the incident to get away from Snyder but he stalked us around the hallways. Hardly the platform to launch some theory that Michael T. was to be expected to fabricate some lie about Vece, Jr.'s motives and statements concerning the incident with Snyder. Michael T., in his statement to the police, also supports Snyder's position that he grabbed Vece, Jr.'s knee to get him off his hand.
Another student, William S., who according to Vece, Jr. went to the principal's office with him to counter any lies Snyder might concoct about Vece, Jr.'s behavior, told the police Vece, Jr. told Snyder, get your fingers out. "Mr. Snyder then put a wrestling move on Ronnie and threw him a few feet in order to get him off his hand." A Michael E. said Snyder went for the play dough and Vece, Jr. did too. He said Snyder told Vece, Jr. to get his foot off his finger, and Vece, Jr. said, "well you put it under there." Snyder then lifted Ron's leg and pushed him away."
Carol Brown, the paraprofessional in the class, had other interesting things to say. She testified that Snyder first said you cannot take the play dough into the hall; "stop messing around with it; and they were continuing to throw it up against the wall." She then heard Snyder say, "get off my hand" but Vece, Jr., in fact, appeared to lean forward. She could not see Snyder's hand but could see Vece, Jr.'s head go forward. She said Vece, Jr. was thrown back into some cabinets, but not six feet back. Brown's story corroborates the view that Snyder was enforcing order and discipline as is a teacher's responsibility. She also, to some extent, corroborates Snyder's construction of the actual events regarding Snyder's and Vece, Jr.'s actions as to the play dough.
All of the foregoing contradicts Vece, Jr,'s story in several respects.
Furthermore, in this case the claimed physical injuries are not only relevant on the question of damages, but they also have importance on the issue of liability. In other words, there is claim of an injury to a specific body part as a result of Snyder's application of force to that body part. And the reasonableness of Snyder's actions is directly related to whether such force was in fact applied and whether anything in fact did cause Vece, Jr. any injury. Vece, Jr. said his groin was injured by Snyder. His lawyer asked him whether he had sought medical treatment and he testified on direct that he went to the team trainer, Katie. No report was submitted from this individual. The father testified the son was limping around and in pain into July of 2003. But no medical treatment or apparently verifiable chiropractic treatment was sought.
The father also said his son's running abilities were affected because of the injury. In the immediately following Fall football season, he was moved from his position as defensive corner "to outside linebacker where he had to deal with three hundred pound guys all day." But this hardly seems to be a prescription for dealing with someone suffering from a groin injury.
For all of the foregoing reasons, the court cannot rule in the plaintiff's favor on the assault claim or any of the other claims advanced by the plaintiffs. Far from establishing the plaintiffs' claims, the court concludes evidence supports Snyder's version of the incident. Any emotional distress suffered by Vece, Jr. was not the result of proven wrongful acts of Snyder, but were precipitated by the actions of Vece, Jr., so claims of negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress or civil risk of injury to a minor have not been established.
In the last analysis the court believes Vece, Jr. has supportive and loving parents and when all is said and done, we have here a nineteen year old testifying about what happened when he was fourteen in a situation that was humiliating for him since all his classmates apparently laughed when Mr. Snyder pushed him away. The plaintiff struck me as an intelligent and articulate youngster who has a bright future ahead of him, but no matter how much natural sympathy that may arouse in the court, it is no less true that Mr. Snyder is entitled to a fair resolution of this case.
In any event, the court finds in favor of the defendant in all counts.
Thomas J. Corradino, Judge
Appendix Footnote 1
Two other evidentiary matters arising out of the testimony of Vece, Jr. and Snyder must be mentioned. As Tait notes in his 4th edition of his and Judge Prescott's Handbook on Connecticut Evidence: "When the state of mind of a person is relevant or in dispute, that person's out of court statements as well as his or her acts are admissible to prove that person's mental state at that time," citing State v. Savage, 161 Conn. 445, 447 (1971) and Horowitz v. FE Spencer Co., 132 Conn. 373, 378-79 (1945), see § 8.19.2 pp. 513-14. The plaintiff sought to introduce evidence that shortly before the May 13th incident, Snyder had animus toward him — he ripped a sombrero off his head and ripped it to shreds; he threw a chair at a boy named Gideon, generally in Vece, Jr.'s direction. Snyder had no memory of the hat incident. Carol Brown said Snyder just grabbed the hat off Vece, Jr.'s head so he would not leave the class with it on and run around the building which she felt was Vece, Jr.'s intention. She said Snyder did not seem particularly angry, it was "not a huge scene." She certainly did not testify the hat was ripped to shreds by Snyder. Testimony about the chair incident was vague, Vece, Jr. did not say the chair was thrown at him.
Suffice it to say none of the foregoing was of much help to the court in finding a pre-existing animus on Snyder's part that would support Vece, Jr.'s version of events. Carol Brown as to Vece, Jr. and Snyder said, "I always felt they had a pretty good relationship." Vece, Jr. said basically the same when he testified. Snyder let him bring a motorcycle to the class which all of them worked on, and then he brought it back to Vece, Jr.'s house.
Another matter should be discussed. Vece, Jr. said that after the incident in the classroom, Snyder "stalked" him into the hallway, following him even into the next class. This apparently was offered to show Snyder's state of mind and his malice and hostility to Vece, Jr. But this must be examined in the full context of what happened. Immediately after Snyder allegedly threw him back, Vece, Jr. said he had "words" with Snyder. He denied the statement another student, Michael T., gave to the police in which he purportedly said he was going to kill Snyder. Carol Brown, in her testimony and statement, said Vece, Jr., was very, very angry, swore at Snyder, threatened to kill or hit him. In her statement she said Vece ranted and raved, and stormed around the room. She said Snyder told him to calm down, "you can't leave the room like this." Another student, Michael E. said Vece, Jr. was swearing and upset. Brown said she tried to call the office to send someone down "because once they get out into the hall, the halls were very crowded and he (Vece, Jr.) was obviously very angry and upset and that's when we try to get somebody to come in and kind of contain the kids if they get angry like that."
The court concludes that Vece, Jr.'s outburst after the incident was of such a nature that any responsible teacher would have necessarily followed him into the hall to make sure his actions did not spill over into the crowded environment that existed between classes.
The court accepts the fact that Vece, Jr. has an information processing disability which Snyder knew about, but it did not factor in and there was no real attempt to factor it in by the plaintiff as a reason to criticize Snyder's actions or approach to how he handled the incident and its immediate aftermath.