Success for Tim Petts in High Court teacher assault claim

Tim Petts, instructed by John Roberts of BLM’s Cardiff office, has successfully defended a claim brought against a South Wales local authority for an alleged assault on a 15-year-old pupil by a teacher.  The 3-day case was tried in the Cardiff District Registry of the High Court by HHJ Curran QC.

The claim arose from events in October 2010 at a secondary school during a Year 11 Welsh lesson.  The class were misbehaving and being disruptive, including throwing pencils and coins around the room whenever the teacher, Mrs X, turned her back.  After the class was spoken to by a more senior teacher, the class calmed down, but the Claimant began laughing at Mrs X’s instructions and answering back.  Her case was that when she was told to leave the classroom towards the end of the lesson, Mrs X pulled her out of the room and pushed her against the wall of the corridor.  She said that she had been pressed against the wall by Mrs X’s chest, that Mrs X had jabbed her repeatedly under the collarbone with her pen and that Mrs X had slapped her once on the face to get her to look at the teacher while she was being told off.  She alleged that she had been shouted at in an abusive and a very personal way.  Her case was that, while she had achieved good GCSE grades later in the school year and gone on in due course to university, the incident was something that had affected her considerably.  She said that her mental health declined at university and her failure to complete her degree was in part due to the impact that the incident had had on her, in particular its effect on her ability to take criticism from her university tutors. No physical injuries were alleged to have been caused.

Mrs X said that no physical contact had taken place.  She agreed that she had shouted at the Claimant for her misbehaviour, but said that she had never and would never touch a pupil. A teacher from the nearest classroom had seen part of the incident when her own classroom door was open but had seen nothing untoward going on, in particular no physical contact.  The pupil’s complaint was referred to the police and to the council’s social services department, but the matter was left to the school to investigate. The school did not uphold the allegation of assault, but Mrs X was given some instructions about not speaking to pupils in a personal way when telling them off.  Proceedings were issued shortly before the Claimant’s 21st birthday.

The claim was brought purely in the tort of trespass to the person.  It was common ground that the council was vicariously liable for Mrs X and that if Mrs X had physically assaulted the Claimant, then the Claimant would succeed, but if there was no physical assault then the claim would fail.  There was no alternative claim in negligence, whether for accidental touching or for telling the Claimant off in an unreasonable verbal way without physical contact.  The case was brought for general damages only, based on a psychiatric report that the incident had caused an adjustment disorder for a few months and had made a contribution of 20% to the Claimant’s borderline personality disorder.  The case was allowed to remain in the High Court, notwithstanding the estimated value being far below the £50,000 threshold for issuing in the High Court, given the issues at stake.  The Claimant’s budgeted costs were also substantial, in excess of £100,000.

In his judgment, HHJ Curran QC entirely accepted Mrs X’s account of the incident and rejected the Claimant’s account that there had been any physical contact.  He accepted the evidence of another teacher that she had heard the Claimant on previous occasions trying to undermine Mrs X by making comments such as “this is a waste of time” or “Miss can’t teach”, and that the Claimant could be manipulative in causing trouble with others and sitting back to watch the consequences.  He agreed that the Claimant’s evidence had been inconsistent. In the circumstances, while he was not prepared to find that the Claimant had lied about the incident, he concluded that the Claimant had not discharged the burden of proof.  The case was therefore dismissed.

Tim Petts has long had an interest in personal injury claims brought against schools by pupils or teachers and has, with Angela Frost, lectured on this topic at chambers events and to members of the Personal Injury Bar Association. An article that he wrote on claims by pupils was published last year by the Journal of Personal Injury Law.