LITTLE ROCK — The state Court of Appeals on Wednesday upheld a $407,000 judgment awarded to the family of a Hermitage High School student who was attacked at school by other students.
Dillion Rippy was 17 when the incident occurred on Aug. 21, 2008. Rippy was eating his lunch in the agriculture classroom, with permission, when six male students entered the room and accused him of writing a racial epithet on a bathroom wall. Rippy is white and the students who accused him are black.
While two female students stood outside the classroom, the male students beat Rippy, inflicting injuries that included a brain injury. No school employee was present when the beating began.
The school’s head of maintenance heard a commotion and went to the classroom, where he saw Rippy on the floor and the other students around him. He then summoned a teacher to the room.
Rippy and his mother, Brenda Riley, sued the school district and its insurance carrier, Diamond State Insurance, over the incident. A Bradley County circuit judge dismissed the district as a defendant, ruling that it had immunity from civil suits, but allowed the family to seek damages from the insurance company. A jury ruled in favor of the family.
On appeal, the insurance company argued that the district’s policy excluded coverage for claims based on bodily injuries, emotional distress or assault “unless arising out of an employment wrongful act.” The district argued that an “employment wrongful act” applies to the hiring or termination of an employee, which was not a factor in the attack on Rippy.
The family argued that the district’s failure to have employees present to ensure the students who carried out the attack were in the cafeteria during lunch and that they were not roaming the halls without permission constituted employment wrongful acts.
A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals said in its opinion Wednesday that the wording of the policy was ambiguous and that when an insurance policy contains ambiguous language, the court must “construe the policy liberally in favor of the insured and strictly against the insurer.”
Judge Bill Walmsley wrote in a separate, concurring opinion that “I do not believe it was the intention of Diamond State Insurance Company to create a general-liability policy for the Hermitage School District” but that because of the ambiguous language he had no choice but to affirm the lower-court ruling.