A showing of negligence requires proof of the following elements: (1) existence of a legal duty, (2) breach of that duty, (3) an injury resulting from the breach, and (4) proximate cause. The existence of a legal duty is a question of law and depends on mixed considerations of logic, common sense, justice, policy, and precedent.
The child, a 13 year old, had engaged in sexual activity with the teacher in his classroom. Defendants alleged that the child had consented to have sex with the teacher. The child and her parents brought suit in federal district court, against the school district, the principal, and the teacher, alleging that the teacher had sexually abused the child and the district and the principal were negligent in hiring and supervising the teacher. The defense of the school, principal and teacher was that the child had consented to have sex with the teacher. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Washington certified a question to the Washington Supreme Court for clarification: can a 13-year-old victim of sexual abuse have contributory fault assessed against her under the Washington Tort Reform Act?
Can a victim of sexual abuse have contributory fault assessed against her under the Washington Tort Reform Act?
The supreme court concluded that, as a matter of law, a child under the age of 16 could not have contributory fault assessed against her for her participation in this type of relationship. She lacked the capacity to consent, and she was under no legal duty to protect herself from the sexual abuse. Societal interests embodied in the criminal laws protecting children from sexual abuse had to apply equally in the civil arena when harm was caused to the child by an adult perpetrator of sexual abuse or a third party in a position to control that person's conduct. Second, the idea that a student had a duty to protect herself from sexual abuse at school by her teacher conflicted with the well-established law that a school district had an enhanced and solemn duty to protect minor students in its care.