Child’s Food Allergy Gives Rise To Civil Action, But Can The State Be Held Liable For School Lunches Containing Allergens?

Your Charleston personal injury lawyers at Howell and Christmas recently read a very interesting case decided outside the State of South Carolina, and thought a brief synopsis of the case would be a nice change of pace for our blog’s readers. The suit illustrates that civil claims against states and state agencies requires a statutory duty owed to the injured party for the action to be enforceable in tort. And exemplifies that negligence is a breach of duty owed to one, and absent that duty, there can be no negligence.

A five-year-old kindergarten student suffered a serious allergic reaction after eating a peanut butter sandwich given to her under her school’s free lunch program. On the day the incident occurred, the young student went to school without a packed lunch or sufficient funds in her cafeteria to purchase lunch. In these instances, the elementary school she attended would serve students a “credit lunch” of either a bologna or peanut butter sandwich. These lunches were subsidized by federal funds administered by the State of Maryland (State) under the National School Lunch Act (NSLA). On the day the student went to school lunchless and with insufficient funds, a cafeteria worker gave her a peanut butter sandwich. Upon resisting to eating the sandwich, and informing the worker she was not allowed to have peanut butter, the student was ordered to eat the sandwich as her protests were mistook for misbehavior by the cafeteria worker.

Immediately the student began experiencing an anaphylactic reaction: her airway and eyelids began to swell, and she became lethargic and confused. After being taken to the school nurse and administered a dose of epinephrine, the student’s mother picked her up and took her to the hospital. The episode caused the student to “experience symptoms of extreme psychological perturbation and post-traumatic distress,” exhibit “regressive behavior such as thumb sucking and withdrawal” and, ultimately, a fear of attending school.

The student’s mother (Petitioner) brought suit against the State, the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), and the State Superintendent of Schools (collectively Respondents), as well as county-level education agencies, officials, and three unnamed cafeteria workers. Petitioner asserted a variety of claims against the county-level defendants, who eventually settled, but her suit against Respondents included only a single claim. Petitioner alleged that the Respondent’s obligations under NSLA imposed a statutory duty of care to ensure that children with food allergies are not served lunches containing allergens. The State moved to dismiss the complaint, contending that because their role under NSLA is limited to monetary reimbursement and periodic monitoring they were not proper parties to the action. This contention specified that it is actually the local school boards who operate the lunch program within their districts. Also, Respondents moved to dismiss on the ground of governmental immunity.

The Circuit Court held a hearing on State’s said motion and determined that the mother’s suit failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, stating “the State did not have a specific statutory duty to control the acts of the school employees or to ensure that each child received the correct food.”

Upon the trial court’s dismissal, the mother appealed, and the Court of Special Appeals affirmed by concluding that the circuit court did not err in its decision and that NSLA does not impose a special duty upon the State to exercise a greater duty of care for students with food allergies. The Court of Appeals of Maryland (Court) granted Petitioner’s writ of ceritiori, which asked the Court to determine if the Circuit Court erred in granting the State’s motion to dismiss by finding the State had no duty of care to five-year-old student.

In the Court’s opinion, it was determined through examining the language of NSLA that there was a lack of congressional intent for the State to be responsible for the individual dietary needs of the students the NSLA services. Rather the State oversees the administration of NSLA and ensuring compliance with federal meal service standards under NSLA. In agreeing with the intermediate appellate court, and invoking the application of the public duty doctrine, the Court decided Petitioner may not maintain a suit in negligence, and, therefore, the Circuit Court did not err in its decision, and the complaint was properly dismissed.

Although the mother’s claim against the State was dismissed, your Charleston personal injury attorneys would like to note that the variety of claims against county-level defendants were settled. Thus, there is some consolation to be taken away from this incident of child injury due to allergic reaction, and hopefully the young student can carry on and move on from this experience to succeed not only in school, but also in life.

The entire case and opinion outlined above can be found by clicking HERE.

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