Lawsuit over teen’s death from prop gun can go forward, court rules

Posted at 2:50 PM, May 26, 2012
and last updated 2012-05-26 16:50:47-04

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court is allowing a lawsuit to proceed against the Washington County School District and others over a 15-year-old boy’s death involving a prop gun.

In its ruling released late Friday, the state’s top court said the school district, school officials and St. George City were not immune from the $2 million lawsuit brought by the family of Tucker Thayer. He died in 2008 at Desert Hills High School, when a gun loaded with blank cartridges went off — killing him.

The school district argued that it was immune.

“The school district concedes that its officials did not issue a permit, license, certificate, or order allowing the presence of the gun on school grounds,” the ruling said. “Instead, it argues that the Licensing Exception applies because Tucker’s death arose out of Officer Richan’s and Vice Principal Goulding’s issuance of an ‘approval’ or ‘authorization’ granting permission for the revolver to be at DHHS.”

“In contrast, the Thayers contend that the Licensing Exception ‘is intended to cover the regulatory, discretionary activities of government agencies that are endowed with the authority to regulate a particular activity’ and does not apply to school officials’ negligent operational decision to create a dangerous condition at the school,” the ruling further stated.

The Thayers are suing in federal court, but because the family raises a new issue in state law — they asked the Utah Supreme Court to weigh in. The court found that they were not immune.

“Officer Richan’s and Vice Principal Goulding’s authorization of the presence of the firearm on campus was not a formal, official authorization by a governmental body or employee endowed with regulatory power to issue such an authorization,” the justices wrote. “In addition, a governmental entity such as the school district may not insulate itself from suit by routinely authorizing and approving the negligent conduct of its employees.”

Justice Thomas Lee issued a dissenting opinion, saying the facts were not all known.

“I would not find the School District categorically immune from liability for its alleged subsequent negligence in this case. Rather, the District’s immunity ought to turn on whether and to what extent Tucker Thayer’s death was caused by its subsequent alleged negligence (for which the government is not immune) or by its issuance of an authorization (for which it is immune),” he wrote.

The Thayer’s lawsuit remains pending in federal court.