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Educational Malpractice

Volume 1, Number 7, Fall 2000

In New Jersey, a first year resident who is sued for medical malpractice sues his residency program for educational malpractice. Sidryk v. St. Michael’s Medical Center, 493 A,2d 641 (N.J. Super 1985) In California, a county hospital seeks half of a medical malpractice settlement from the medical school which supervised the people who were negligent. County of Riverside v. Loma Linda University In New York, a student alleges that the college failed to adequately prevent other students from cheating. Gally v. Columbia University, 22 F. Supp. 2nd 199 (S.D.N.Y, 1998) In Ohio, a student sues a private vocational school for failing to adequately educate or train him to the extent that he could find employment in his new specialty. Matulin v. Academy of Court Reporting, 1992 WL 74210 (Ohio App. 1992)

All the cases mentioned above allege that some form of educational malpractice had occurred. The theory of educational mal-practice is based on the assumption that educators have two basic professional duties. This theory applies to all levels of teaching from primary school to post doctoral level training. First, teachers should deliver adequate instruction or training. Teachers are expected to educate their student to the standards set by an accrediting organization or state education department. Teachers also are responsible for the safety and wellbeing of their students while in their care. In the case of a discipline that educates health care professionals, such as social work, the supervisory duty extends to the contacts students have with others in the course of their professional training.

Historically, professors have felt a degree of immunity from professional liability claims. There is good reason for this feeling of reduced risk exposure too. The plaintiff(s) lost in all of the previously mentioned cases and nearly every other case where educational malpractice has been alleged. Thus far, American courts have been reluctant to evaluate education as they do medical malpractice or product liability claims.

However plaintiffs’ attorneys continue to pursue litigation related to educational practice. Thirty years ago, it was rare for a social worker to be sued for malpractice. Now, it is common. Could educators be that far behind?

Social workers engaged in an academic career can benefit from some of the simple risk management strategies employed by their clinical brethren.

  1. Be familiar with and follow written policy requirements promulgated by the educational institution, accrediting organization, or state education departments.
  2. Be alert for signs of fraud, plagiarism or cheating by the students and take immediate action to stop such activities. Appropriately recognize any contributions made by students to your own work.
  3. Know the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers as it applies to the academic environment.
  4. Always maintain a professional demeanor and distance while teaching. Avoid becoming overly involved in a student’s personal life.
  5. Maintain and understand that social workers professional liability insurance covers malpractice complaints against you arising out of your social work teaching activities only. (Other insurable educator liabilities typically are covered by college/university policies.)

Margaret A. Bogie, MHSA, Insurance Consultant, is a contributing writer and Mirean Coleman, LICSW, Senior Staff Associate at NASW, is a contributing editor to this series for the NASW Insurance Trust. The names and case examples used in Practice Pointers articles are completely fictitious, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Questions about this article should be directed to NASW via blawrence@naswasi.org.