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Board of Education of Borough of Palmyra v. Hansen

Decided: July 2, 1959.


McGann, J.c.c.


This matter comes before the court on a motion by the defendants for a summary judgment in favor of the defendants Clayton Hansen and Sophia Hansen, parents of Daryl Lee Hansen, to dismiss the second and third counts of the plaintiff's complaint on the grounds that (a) the statutory provision on which the plaintiff relies does not apply to the facts of this case; (b) that the statute on which the school board relies is unconstitutional because the title of the act, of which it is a part, fails to express the objective of imposing absolute liability on parents for the torts of their children as required by Art. IV, Sec. VII, par. 4 of the New Jersey Constitution; and (c) that the statute in question is unconstitutional under both the New Jersey and Federal Constitutions because it deprives parents of property without due process of law.

The defendant Daryl Lee Hansen, son of Russell Clayton Hansen and Sophia Hansen, all defendants in this action, and one George Lehman, were enrolled as students at Palmyra High School in the Fall semester of 1957. On Sunday night, December 8, 1957, Hansen and Lehman went to the high school building for the alleged purpose of securing examination papers. While there it is charged that the defendant Daryl Lee Hansen set fire to the school. As a

result of the fire, the high school was damaged to the extent of $344,000.

Consequently, the plaintiff board of education brought this action against Daryl Lee Hansen, alleging that the fire was caused by reason of his negligence. His parents were joined as defendants by reason of the provisions of R.S. 18:14-51 which provides as follows:

"Any pupil who shall cut, deface, or otherwise injure any schoolhouse, furniture, fences, outbuildings, or other property of the school district shall be liable to suspension and punishment, and his parents or guardian shall be liable for damages to the amount of the injury to be collected by the board of education in any court having jurisdiction, together with the costs of the action."

Counsel for the parents argues that the language of the statute implies that the liability is only applicable where the student violates school property, or otherwise injures it, during school hours. He goes on to point out that the statutory provision in question dates back to 1867 and formerly had in it the phrase "on complaint of the teacher." These words were omitted in subsequent enactments of the statute. Counsel relies on the case of Lamro Independent Consolidated School District No. 20 of Tripp County v. Cawthrone , 73 N.W. 2 d 337 (S.D. Sup. Ct. 1955). In that case the court dismissed the action against the parents solely because the act provided that parents were responsible "on the complaint of the teacher." S.D.C. 15.3009. The latter phrase indicates that the alleged injury would have to be one occurring while the pupil was in the presence of the teacher or under her supervision, and thus if the pupil were not under the supervision and authority of the teacher, there could be no liability.

The New Jersey statute omits this phrase "on complaint of the teacher," and, therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the New Jersey Legislature did not intend to so restrict or qualify the liability of the parents. Statutes should be interpreted by giving the words used therein their usual and ordinary meaning. See the cases of Lane v. Holderman ,

23 N.J. 304, 313 (1957); Jamouneau v. Harner , 16 N.J. 500 (1954).

It is also argued that this statute is in derogation of common law and, therefore, should be construed strictly. This is so. However, public schools are not a common-law institution. They are a statutory creation, and it follows that if the Legislature has the right to confer benefits on the people by way of a free education, it certainly has the right to set up the conditions under which such benefits shall be provided. The Legislature has authority to impose restrictions on those seeking to attend the public schools and can suspend or expel for events happening out of school hours, 16 McQuillin, Municipal Corporations (3 rd ed.), ยง 46.21, p. 635.

On this point, Justice Bodine, speaking for our former Supreme Court, in the case of Hering v. State Board of Education , 11 ...

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