In a 3-2 decision handed down Friday, justices ruled school districts can't avoid such litigation under a state law that provides immunity to government agencies.
The parents of 15-year-old Tucker Thayer filed the wrongful death suit against the Washington County School District and others after he was killed while handling a blank-firing prop pistol before a school play.
Ron and Cathie Thayer are seeking more than $2 million in damages for the death that occurred before a presentation of "Oklahoma" at Desert Hills High School.
"A governmental entity such as the school district may not insulate itself form suit by routinely authorizing and approving the negligent conduct of its employees," Justice Christine Durham wrote in the majority opinion.
But in the dissenting opinion, Justices Thomas Lee and Matthew Durrant argued there were not enough facts presented to the high court to determine the school district's immunity under a "licensing exemption" in the law.
"In my view, the district's immunity depends on the resolution of questions of fact that are not before us," Lee wrote, adding they should be resolved by the federal court.
Attorneys for the school district argued the school's approval of the prop for use in the play constituted a regulatory decision, which makes the district immune from the Thayers' suit.
The federal court turned the immunity issue over to the Utah high court because it raised a new question of state law.
The Thayers' suit claims a safety plan used for the play was repeatedly violated in the weeks before their son's death. The teenager was alone in the sound booth when the .38-caliber revolver loaded with a blank cartridge went off near his head. He died later.
Ron Thayer hailed the high court's ruling.
"We don't want to get our hopes up and get them dashed again, but we won this one," he told the Deseret News. "Until we know for sure that it's moving forward (it's just) one more hurdle."
Assistant Attorney General Barry Lawrence told The Salt Lake Tribune that justices addressed an important legal issue that would likely arise in other cases.