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Anderson v. Anoka Hennepin Independent School District 11

May 06, 2004



Teacher is entitled to common law official immunity when the claim against the teacher is that he followed a school protocol that was established through the exercise of discretionary professional judgment.

A school district is entitled to vicarious official immunity when its employee is protected by common law official immunity for conduct in compliance with a school protocol that involved the exercise of protected discretion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Blatz, Chief Justice.

Dissenting, Gilbert, J.


Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.


Respondent Edward Anderson (hereinafter "respondent"), individually and in his capacity as guardian for his son, Trevor Anderson, sued appellants Paul Peterson and Anoka Hennepin Independent School District 11 (the "district") because of injuries Trevor incurred from an accident in a high school wood shop class taught by Peterson. The district court denied the district's and Peterson's summary judgment motions based on claims of statutory, official and vicarious official immunity and was affirmed by the court of appeals. We conclude that Peterson is protected by common law official immunity and the district is protected by vicarious official immunity. We therefore reverse.

Trevor Anderson was injured in an accident on May 16, 2000, when he was "ripping"*fn1 1-1/2 inch strips of wood on a circular table saw for his Woods II class project, a TV/VCR stand. Trevor was a somewhat experienced woodworker, as he had taken the Woods I course and had worked with various power tools outside of the classroom under the direction and supervision of his father. Trevor's teacher, appellant Peterson, had directed Trevor to rip wood strips with the Biesemeyer blade guard disengaged, and to instead use a "push stick."*fn2 A "push stick" is a device that allows the operator of a table saw to push pieces of wood through the saw while maintaining a safe distance between the operator's hands and the blade. Peterson watched Trevor cut four or five of the strips and then moved to another part of the classroom while Trevor continued to cut.

After Peterson walked away, Trevor completed pushing a piece of wood through the saw with a push stick. However, a "waste" piece of wood, now resting on the other side of the blade, began to move on the saw table. Trevor reached over the blade with his left hand to move the wood scrap, and as he reached over the blade his left index finger hit the blade, amputating the finger at the knuckle.

Respondent brought this action individually and on behalf of Trevor seeking damages against the district and Peterson for their alleged negligence. Appellants each moved for summary judgment: the district on grounds of statutory immunity under Minn. Stat. § 466.03, subd. 6 (2002) and vicarious official immunity, and Peterson on grounds of common law official immunity. The district court denied summary judgment. The court denied statutory immunity to the district on the basis that the decision not to use the blade guard did not involve social, political or economic policy considerations. It denied common law official immunity to Peterson relying on Larson v. Indep. Sch. Dist. No. 314, Braham, 289 N.W.2d 112 (1979), and therefore denied vicarious official immunity to the district as well.

The court of appeals affirmed. Anderson v. Anoka Hennepin Ind. Sch. Dist. 11, 655 N.W.2d 847, 854 (Minn. App. 2003). The court agreed with the district court that statutory immunity is inapplicable because the conduct at issue did not involve the exercise of policy-level discretion. Id. at 852. The court also held Peterson was not entitled to common law official immunity because his decisions involving the use of a circular table saw without a blade guard did not concern "policy decisions with broad implications," and consequently held the district was not entitled to vicarious official immunity. Id. at 854. Appellants then filed a petition for further review on common law official immunity and vicarious immunity grounds, and we granted review.*fn3

The issues before us are whether the court of appeals erred in affirming denial of summary judgment by holding both that appellant Paul Peterson is not entitled to common law official immunity and that the district is not entitled to vicarious official immunity. While denial of a motion for summary judgment is not ordinarily appealable, an exception to this rule exists when the denial of summary judgment is based on rejection of a statutory or official immunity defense. E.g., Gleason v. Metro. Council Transit Operations, 582 N.W.2d 216, 218 (Minn. 1998). On review of an order denying summary judgment, this court must determine whether there are genuine issues of material fact and whether the lower court erred in applying the law. Id. at 218-219. Immunity is a legal question reviewed de novo. Id. at 219.


We first address whether Peterson is protected by common law official immunity. As we have explained in numerous cases, the doctrine of common law official immunity provides that "a public official charged by law with duties which call for the exercise of his judgment or discretion is not personally liable to an individual for damages unless he is guilty of a willful or malicious wrong." Elwood v. Rice County, 423 N.W.2d 671, 677 (Minn. 1988) (quoting Susla v. State, 311 Minn. 166, 175, 247 N.W.2d 907, 912 (1976)). The purpose of official immunity is to "protect[] public officials from the fear of personal liability that might deter independent action and impair effective performance of their duties." Id. at 678 (citing Restatement (Second) of Torts § 895D cmt. B; Nusbaum v. County of Blue Earth, 422 N.W.2d 713, 722 (Minn. 1988)). Consistent with this purpose, common law official immunity does not protect officials when they are charged with the execution of ministerial, rather than discretionary, functions, that is, where "independent action" is neither required nor desired.*fn4

We have frequently reiterated our longstanding definition of a ministerial duty as one that is "absolute, certain, and imperative, involving merely the execution of a specific duty arising from fixed and designated facts." Wiederholt v. City of Minneapolis, 581 N.W.2d 312, 315 (Minn. 1998) (quoting Cook v. Trovatten, 200 Minn. 221, 224, 274 N.W. 165, 167 (1937) (citation omitted)). Thus, in Wiederholt we held that a city sidewalk inspector's duty was ministerial when a city ordinance established "fixed and designated facts," i.e., that protrusion of any sidewalk slab more than one inch above the adjacent slab would require immediate repair. Id. at 316. We have also stated that the mere existence of some degree of judgment or discretion will not necessarily confer common law official immunity; rather, the focus is on the nature of the act at issue. Elwood, 423 N.W.2d at 677. Accordingly, we have held that official immunity would not apply to a physical education teacher's decision how to teach a gymnastic exercise. Larson, 289 N.W.2d at 120.*fn5

In determining whether Peterson should be protected by common law official immunity, it is important to identify the specific conduct at issue in the case. See Gleason, 582 N.W.2d at 219. Respondent acknowledges that he is not challenging the decisions to teach woodworking, to use power equipment in the course, to allow Trevor to use the table saw, or even to leave Trevor unsupervised to make the remaining rip cuts on his own. Rather, the specific conduct challenged is the decision to instruct Trevor to make the rip cuts with the blade guard disengaged.

Nonetheless, respondent contends that the decision regarding the use of the blade guard was ministerial. In respondent's view, the ministerial nature of the decision is easily discerned by comparison to other decisions that were made relating to the woodworking class, such as whether or not to offer the course, whether to purchase a particular table saw as opposed to another brand, whether to utilize the blade guard that came with the saw or purchase a more expensive Biesemeyer guard, or whether the students in the course should be allowed to operate power equipment. Respondent argues that this group of decisions is clearly policymaking and discretionary and therefore protected by common law official immunity, and in contrast, that the decision to remove the blade guard was not a "policymaking decision," and therefore not protected by official immunity. In essence, respondent argues that because all students were required to build the project in the same manner, i.e., using the circular table saw with the blade guard disengaged, the instruction was ministerial.

The court of appeals agreed that Peterson's actions were ministerial, reasoning:

Here, rather than exercising policy-making power, appellant Paul Peterson only carried out ministerial functions. Although Peterson exercised independent judgment by deciding how to supervise his classroom and whether to use the blade guard, these are ...

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