High school is hell, but can Sunnydale be sued for building on top of a hellmouth?

“From beneath you, it devours.”

High school is a rough time for most of us.  Joss Whedon took this basic truth and turned it into brilliance in  Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where high school’s metaphorical terrors turn literal.  And given that high school is hell, where better to locate a hellmouth then directly under Sunnydale High?

Big deal.  So there’s a hellmouth under Sunnydale High, so what?  Well, for parents considering sending their children there, they should know that, while Buffy attended Sunnydale High, the hellmouth was located directly under the library and even when the school was rebuilt they decided to put the hellmouth directly under the principal’s office.  And this hellmouth is not for the faint of heart.  At times there were large, octupi-like demons that would reach up into the libary out of the hellmouth (for example, in The Zeppo, one of my favorite Buffy episodes ever).  Later, under the rebuilt high school, the First Evil stocked up on uber-vampires known as Turok-Hans inside the hellmouth, preparing to take over the world.

Having such a hellmouth under the high school obviously has an impact on the safety (even the life expectancy) of students attending the school.  The question is – can somebody be held responsible for this poor design plan?  And the answer is – yes.

In California, the state in which the fictional Sunnydale High is set, a public entity such as a school can be held responsible for an injury caused by a dangerous condition of its property if you can show that: (1) the property was in a dangerous condition at the time of the injury; (2) the injury was proximately caused by the dangerous condition; (3) the dangerous condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the kind of injury that was incurred; (4) and either (a) a negligent or wrongful act or omission of an employee of the school created the dangerous condition within the scope of his employment , or (b) the school had actual or constructive notice of the dangerous condition a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition.

All of the above can certainly be established for students and staff at Sunnydale High.  The Hellmouth is certainly a dangerous condition that caused physical harm and/or death to many students and staff (for example, the great psychologist Mr. Platt).  As for the type of risk suffered (e.g., killed by werewolves, turned into sea monsters), the law does not require that the precise nature of the accident be foreseeable – just that the general character of the event should be foreseeable.  Demonic activity and bizarre metamorpheses are certainly the general types of events that could be foreseen when your school is built on top of a hellmouth.  Finally, while the residents of Sunnydale were willing to turn a blind eye to dangerous conditions that existed in the entire town, an objective outsider would argue that, at least by the end of the first season, the school had active or constructive notice of the hellmouth’s existence.

In sum, Sunnydale High turns on its head the general belief held by courts that “schools are not considered to be dangerous places per se.”  The matriculation rate at Sunnydale High had to be shockingly low, with many sad losses of students, staff, and faculty (although Harmony actually improved after death).  And a good lawyer could have made the school pay for that…assuming, of course, that Mayor Wilkins didn’t kill her first.


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Jessica has been litigating business and IP disputes for the past decade. During that time, she’s dealt with clients, lawyers, and judges who have varying degrees of appreciation for the challenges of managing discovery in an electronic age. Until the fall of 2011, she was an attorney at a large, Texas-based law firm, where she represented clients in state and federal court nationwide. That fall, she made a long-desired move back to the Midwest and is now a partner at Hansen Reynolds Dickinson Crueger LLC, a litigation boutique based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she continues to litigate while also consulting with business and law firms on e-discovery issues (before, during, and after litigation arises).


  1. Hmmm, given the state of public education in California in general, I am beginning to suspect that many public schools in the Golden State are built on or near portals to the Kingdom of Darkness.

  2. I think your otherwise cogent analysis overlooks the Hellmouth’s tendency to cause people in its vicinity to overlook the various weird things that happen in proximity to it. You cannot, in other words, hold the city of Sunnydale liable for building a school on the Hellmouth because the Helmouth’s malign influence was itself responsible for the decision.

    Time and again we see the citizens of Sunnydale turn a blind, accepting eye towards odd events. Jonathan’s “Class Protector” speech in Season 3 makes this clear: they all know about the odd events, and they realize they are odd, but they take them in stride. What, if not the pernicious influence of the Hellmouth itself, could cause such cognitive impairment?

    Good luck serving a subpoena duces tecum on the Hellmouth’s inhabitants.