As recently pointed out by former Queens County Supreme Court Justice Leonard L. Finz in his article titled: The Duty of a School to a Student Injured in a School Activity (10/12/12), there are several factors that must be proven in order for a student to succeed in holding a school liable for the alleged injuries he or she claims was directly caused by the school’s negligence. Aside from the fact that such injury must have been proximately caused by the school’s negligence, it is the foreseeability of the potential harm by the school (i.e.: faculty, para-professionals and school security) that is the key factor.
For example, if the school has activities that it is aware can cause injury to a student, such as sporting events, or shop classes involving tools and machinery that can be dangerous if not properly used and/or supervised, and the failure to carefully monitor the situation directly results in a student’s injury, then the foreseeability and proximate cause elements in a suit would clearly be met.
But what happens when an injury does not occur on or near the school’s premises? To what degree can a school be held liable for negligence? This was the issue considered by the Court of Appeals in Stephenson v. NYC (NYLJ, 10/19/12) where the plaintiff was injured in a fight by a fellow student on his way to school. Unlike those cases where a fight occurs in the school or on the surrounding premises, this incident happened two blocks away.
In order to better understand how the Court ruled in Stephenson, it is necessary to briefly review the earlier decisions of the Court that were relied on in reaching its most recent holding.
In 1939, the Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of an action against the trustees of a school district where a student was injured by another student while playing in a field across the road from the school during recess. The field was part of the school property, but students playing there could not be seen from the school. Although the trustees knew of the physical setting between the school building and the field and there were no teachers in the field when the injury occurred, the Court drew a distinction between the trustees of the school district and the teachers who worked in the schools. In looking at the then existing statute that empowered the trustees “to establish rules for the government and discipline of the schools” the Court determined that the trustees were not responsible for every detail in managing the school. The responsibility lay directly with the teachers who “[a]t recess periods, not less than in the class room…owes it to his charges to exercise such care of them as a parent of ordinary prudence would observe in comparable circumstances”. The danger lay in the probability that the pupils would play as they did. The effective cause of the plaintiff’s injuries was a failure to protect the boys against themselves. Any dereliction in this aspect was the fault of the teachers, for which the trustees cannot be held to answer to the plaintiff. (Hoose v. Drumm, 281 NY 54). Here, the Court was making it clear that liability for negligence falls squarely upon the teachers in direct control and supervision of the students.
Of major significance with respect to injuries occurring off the school’s premises, is the case of Pratt v. Robinson, (39, NY2d 554, 1976), where, for the first time, the Court of Appeals discusses the “orbit of authority” within which a school’s responsibility for its students can be determined. In Pratt, the plaintiff was injured by a truck as she was crossing a dangerous intersection while walking home from the bus stop where she had just been dropped off. The plaintiff and her parents sued the city, the school district and the bus company [after a settlement was reached with the driver and owner of the truck]. The theory of the suit was that the bus stop should have been in a different location to avoid having to cross the intersection where the accident occurred and the defendants were liable for their negligence in selecting the existing bus stop. The Court upheld the Appellate Division’s affirmance of the trial court’s dismissal of the complaint. Pointing out that the bus was merely an accommodation to the plaintiff, who voluntarily chose to take advantage of it, the parents were well aware of the bus schedule and the locations of pick-ups and drop-offs. It further noted that the child and the parents Awere in precisely in the same position as if the school itself, rather than the bus stop was located at the corner of [the accident] and no busing was provided at all”. (id. at 558) In order to have found the school negligent there had to be “a duty on the part of the school district to transport the plaintiff to a location from which she could walk home without crossing any dangerous street on the way”. No such duty existed here. Once the student was dropped off at a safe location the school was no longer responsible and parental control takes over. Of course, if the injury occurred while actually being transported to and from school the outcome of this case would have been different. The crux of the Court’s holding was stated as follows: The duty owed by a school to its students, however, stems from the fact of its physical custody over them. The school’s duty is thus coextensive with and concomitant to its physical custody of and control over the child. When that custody ceases because the child has passed out of the orbit of its authority in such a way that the parent is perfectly free to reassume control over the child’s protection, the school’s custodial duty also ceases”. (id. at 560)
Mirand v. City of New York, (84 NY2d 44, 1994) was an earlier example of a student being intentionally assaulted and injured by another student. After an initial unprovoked encounter with another student, plaintiff was threatened by the student that she will “kill” the plaintiff. The plaintiff then went to the security office which was closed. She then informed a teacher she saw in the hallway about the threat and returned to the security office which was still closed. When she eventually exited the building through the main entrance there was no security or police on duty and the plaintiff was again attacked by the same student sustaining serious injuries. Since schools cannot protect against all sudden, spontaneous and unexpected conduct of students, “an injury caused by the impulsive, unanticipated act of a fellow student ordinarily will not give rise to a finding of negligence absent proof of prior conduct that would have put a reasonable person on notice to protect against the injury-causing act”. (id. at 49) Here, however, by informing a teacher of her prior altercation and the threat made to her, plaintiff gave the school actual notice (foreseeability) that another incident could occur when she was going to leave school. That, coupled with the absence of any security at the main doors at dismissal time “when the largest number of students congregate and fights are most likely to occur,” are factual issues from which a jury could find that these were the proximate causes of her injuries.
Returning to the Stephenson case, the plaintiff and another student were involved in a fight between classes at school. As a result, both students were suspended, the plaintiff for one day and the other student for two weeks. The two students did not see each other for the balance of that day. The next day, however, the plaintiff was threatened by the other student on school grounds, but after school hours. The following day, while walking to school, the plaintiff was assaulted and injured by the same student from the previous altercation and who threatened him the day before. The incident occurred two blocks away from the school. In affirming dismissal of the complaint, the Court of Appeals relied on its prior decisions in Hoose, Pratt and Mirand, supra. AGenerally, the duty of care does not extend beyond school premises. As this Court has explained :”When [the school’s] custody ceases because the child passes out of the orbit of its authority in such a way that the parent is perfectly free to reassume control over the child’s protection, the school’s custodial duty also ceases’ (Pratt, 39 NY2d at 560)”. Moreover, the Court noted that the school adequately supervised the students while in school and addressed the prior altercation on school grounds, whereas the second incident not only occurred out of the school’s orbit of authority but prior to school hours when no teachers would be available. Finally, the Court held that the school had no duty to notify the plaintiff’s parents of the generalized threats made at school as “this case did not involve threatened conduct that would occur while the child was in custody and control of school officials”.
On the same day that the Court decided Stephenson, it also rendered a one sentence decision in Summer H. v. NYCDOE, (NYLJ, 10/19/12), citing Mirand, supra at 49: “Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to plaintiff (citation omitted), the defendant demonstrated its entitlement to summary judgment dismissing the complaint. The infant plaintiff’s classmate’s action in stepping backwards constituted a “thoughtless or careless act” not preventable by reasonable supervision (Mirand v.City of New York, 84 NY2d 44, 49 )”.
Thus, as can be seen, schools cannot be held negligent for incidents off premises outside their orbit of authority or those which cannot be prevented by reasonable supervision. On the other hand, where it is foreseeable that injury can occur and no steps are taken to prevent it and such failure of proper supervision is the proximate cause of the injury, a school can be held liable for negligence. Clearly, the outcome in any case is based on its specific facts.