Appellate Court Holds Educational Malpractice Claims Not Cognizable in Illinois


[author: Ellen Wetmore]

In a case of first impression, the First District Appellate Court recently held in Waugh v. Morgan Stanley and Co., Inc. that the tort of “educational malpractice,” also called “negligent instruction,” is not a cognizable cause of action in Illinois.

In Waugh, several flight instructors and flight schools were sued for negligent training and negligent instruction in connection with a fatal airplane crash. The claims brought against these defendants were based on their training of the plane’s pilot, who was killed in the crash. Reasoning that the negligence claims were premised on a theory of educational malpractice, the Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the flight instructors and schools, holding that such educational malpractice claims were barred as a matter of law.

Significantly, the Court defined educational malpractice broadly, holding that “[i]f a claim raises questions about the reasonableness of an educator’s conduct in providing educational services, or if a claim requires an analysis of the quality of education, it is a claim for educational malpractice.” The Court then explained that any claims that “clearly fit within the matrix for claims sounding in educational malpractice” will not be analyzed as ordinary negligence claims, and instead, will be barred as educational malpractice claims.

The Court articulated three types of claims that fall under the rubric of educational malpractice: “(1) the student alleges that the school negligently failed to provide him with adequate skills; (2) the student alleges that the school negligently diagnosed or failed to diagnose his learning or mental disabilities; or (3) the student alleges that the school negligently supervised his training.” (The Court distinguished “negligent training” in the employer/employee context and noted that employers may still be held liable for injuries caused by employees that they negligently train or supervise.)

In holding that the tort of educational malpractice is not cognizable in Illinois, the Court observed that most jurisdictions that have considered the issue have refused to recognize a cause of action for educational malpractice. In addition, the Court noted that the Seventh Circuit interpreted Illinois law in the case Ross v. Creighton University to find that the Illinois Supreme Court would not, in the Seventh Circuit’s estimation, recognize a cause of action for educational malpractice.

Citing decisions from a variety of other jurisdictions, the Court articulated several policy reasons why educational malpractice claims should not be cognizable: “(1) the lack of a satisfactory standard of care by which to evaluate an educator; (2) the inherent uncertainties about causation and the nature of damages in light of such intervening factors as a student’s attitude, temperament, past experience, and home environment; (3) the potential for a flood of litigation against schools; and (4) the possibility that such claims will embroil the courts into overseeing the day-to-day operations of schools.”

Underscoring the breadth of its holding, the Court explicitly refused to carve out any exception that would permit educational malpractice claims against “nontraditional educational institutions,” clarifying that the analysis “turns on the type of claim raised, not the type of defendant.” Furthermore, the Court declined to allow the application of ordinary negligence principles (as the one dissenting justice would have done) to cases in which physical injury is alleged.

For the first time, an Illinois Appellate Court has definitively confirmed that claims for educational malpractice cannot be brought under Illinois law. In addition, by barring any claim that (1) raises a question about the reasonableness of an educator’s conduct in providing educational services; or (2) requires an analysis of the quality of education, the Court’s decision makes it clear that plaintiffs cannot avoid the effect of the rule by framing their claims as ordinary negligence claims.

The Waugh decision aligns Illinois with the majority of other jurisdictions that have considered the issue of educational malpractice and is consistent with other lines of authority in Illinois law that defer to academic judgments made by educational institutions.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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