SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit against the Davis School District over a teacher's illegal relationship with a student.
The decision handed down Thursday concludes that, under Utah law, the school district is a state entity immune from liability for physical and emotional harm suffered as the result of physical battery.
The ruling also noted, however, that the court had issued legislators an invitation to change the immunity law years earlier.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit was 16 years old in 2013 when he became one of three teenagers involved in a sexual relationship with Brianne Altice, an English teacher at Davis High School.
Altice went on to plead guilty to three counts of forcible sexual abuse, a second-degree felony, and was sentenced to three terms of one to 15 years in prison. She was ordered to serve two terms consecutively and one concurrently.
The teen sued the school district claiming that it improperly hired and trained Altice, and alleging other district employees failed to protect the boy from her advances. The lawsuit sought at least $674,000 in damages.
According to the high court's decision, the teen's lawsuit claimed Altice had been terminated from a prior job for sexual misconduct before Davis High School hired her, and that she had been previously reprimanded by the school before the relationship began.
While Utah law gives state entities immunity in such cases, the teen's lawsuit argued that because the boy had engaged in the relationship willingly, he was not a victim of physical battery. Attorneys for the school district maintained, however, that because the teen was underage, he could not legally consent.
Ultimately, 2nd District Judge John Morris agreed that the damage the student suffered falls under immunities granted in the Governmental Immunity Act and dismissed the lawsuit in December of 2015.
The high court's decision, which identifies Altice only as "the teacher," upheld Morris' ruling, noting that until the Legislature indicates otherwise, the judge was correct in his ruling that the school district was immune from damages in the case.
"It might seem counterintuitive that our law provides no civil remedy against a school district that is alleged to have negligently hired and retained a teacher who has illegal sexual contact with her minor students. But this conclusion is, in our view, compelled by the (Governmental Immunity) Act and by Utah Supreme Court precedent," the decision states.
The decision also notes that the court had invited lawmakers to reconsider the immunity law in 1993 when issuing a ruling in a similar case.
"In the intervening years, however, our Legislature has not amended the Act to expressly provide for such a remedy," the decision states. "Under the language of the Act … the district is entirely immune from suit for the acts alleged here. Accordingly, the district court correctly dismissed (the teen's) complaint."