The Arkansas Court of Appeals on Wednesday affirmed a Bradley Circuit Court judgment awarding $400,000 in damages to a former Hermitage High School student attacked at the school by six other students.
On August 21, 2008, Dillion Rippy, a 17-year-old white male student, was attacked by six black male students while he was eating lunch in the agriculture classroom at Hermitage High School. Rippy’s attackers accused Rippy of writing a racial epithet on the bathroom wall and physically attacked him while two female students accompanying the six males remained outside the door of the classroom.
The school’s head of maintenance heard the commotion and ran into the classroom where he saw Rippy’s attackers surrounding Rippy, who was lying on the floor with a wound to the back of his head. The maintenance worker called for a teacher and the students were escorted from the room.
Rippy and his mother, Brenda Riley subsequently filed a lawsuit against the Hermitage School District and Diamond State Insurance Company. Diamond State insured the district under a claims-made policy entitled “Educators Legal Liability Policy.”
According to the lawsuit, the students attacked Rippy suddenly and without provocation, with profanity-laced tirades and racist comments, and inflicted injuries to Rippy, including one to his brain.
The family alleged in the lawsuit that the district was negligent in failing to meet the requirements of its own personnel policy, arguing 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.
The lawsuit further alleged that an employee of the school district, who was a teacher or teacher’s aide at the time, overheard the students who attacked Rippy talking about what they planned to do to him, but did nothing to try to intervene or try to prevent the attack from occurring.
The Hermitage School District was dismissed from the lawsuit on grounds of immunity and the case went to trial in 2012 against Diamond State Insurance Company.
At trial, the insurance company argued that the insurance policy did not cover the conduct at issue.
At the conclusion of the two-day trial, Rippy was awarded $400,000 in damages and his mother was awarded $6,847.09.
Diamond State appealed the judgment to the Arkansas Court of Appeals which upheld the Bradley County Circuit Court ruling. The three-judge panel said in its opinion on 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 insurance company.
“Although only eight employment-related practices and policies appear in the definition of wrongful act, this list is introduced by the word ‘including’. The list therefore in non-exhaustive, resulting in an ambiguity as to the meaning of the exclusion and being fairly susceptible to the reasonable interpretation alleged by (Rippy and Riley),” the Arkansas Court of Appeals wrote in its opinion affirming the Bradley County Circuit Court judgment. “The contract is thus to be strictly construed against Diamond State, which wrote the policy, and we affirm the circuit court’s decision that the policy afforded coverage.”
In a separate, concurring opinion, Judge Bill Walmsley said he does not believe it was the intention of Diamond State Insurance Company to create a general-liability policy for the Hermitage School District but because of the ambiguous language he had no choice but to affirm the Bradley County Circuit Court decision.