Washington Appeals Court Allows Negligence Case Against School District for Student’s Death to Proceed

In a Washington negligence case, the plaintiff must prove the defendant breached a duty of care and that the breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury.  Generally, there is not a duty for one person to prevent someone else from causing injury to another person, but there may be a duty if there is a special relationship.  School districts, due to the custodial relationship with their students, may have a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent a reasonably foreseeable harm to their students.

In a recent case, a personal representative sued a school district after a high school student was killed in an accident off campus.  A physical education teacher took the class for a walk off campus.  The school had policies requiring teachers to get parental or guardian permission before taking students off campus for an excursion or field trip.  The teacher did not follow those policies, but the defendants argued they were not applicable to the walk off campus.  The teacher claimed the principal had approved him taking the class off campus, but there was conflicting information regarding exactly what the principal knew.

The teacher did not get any additional adult supervision.  He walked with the students on the sidewalk beyond the school safety zone.  The speed limit was up to 40 miles per hour.  Some of the students were up to 200 meters away from the teacher at times.  The appeals court’s opinion stated students were “explicitly granted permission” to cross the street outside the designated crosswalks.

On the way back to school, the students walked on the sidewalk with their backs to oncoming traffic.  Several students, including the deceased, were struck by the defendant driver’s SUV.  The driver fell asleep and went off the roadway and onto the sidewalk.  Two students were killed and two others were “grievously injured.”

The personal representative of one of the deceased student’s filed suit against the driver and the school district.  The school district moved for summary judgment, arguing the collision had not been foreseeable and, even if the school district had breached a duty, that breach was not the proximate cause of the student’s death.  The trial court found the collision was not foreseeable and granted summary judgment in favor of the school district.

The personal representative appealed, arguing the trial court erred in finding the collision was not foreseeable.  She argued that the trial court based its foreseeability determination on the specific harm instead of the general field of danger.  She argued that the school district had a duty of care if the event was within the general field of danger that was created when the teacher took the student for a walk off campus.  The school district argued the trial court had dismissed the claims against it because its actions were not the cause in fact nor the legal cause of the student’s death.

The appeals court found the trial court misapplied the foreseeability standard.  The trial court focused on whether the specific event was foreseeable, rather than whether the event was in the general field of danger.  The appeals court stated that “it is common knowledge . . . that cars do not always stay in their lanes . . .”  There was also expert opinion evidence and statistics that car accidents involving pedestrians are common in the United States.  School officials acknowledged in their depositions that taking the students off campus could result in harm.  Based on this evidence, there was at least a question of fact regarding whether it was reasonably foreseeable that having the students walking along a public road off campus could result in an injury from a motor vehicle accident.

The school district also argued that there was no genuine issue of material fact as to whether its breach was the proximate cause of the student’s death.  The parties’ expert witnesses disagreed about whether the school’s policy applied to the walk and whether compliance with the policy would have prevented the student’s death.  The appeals court found this dispute was sufficient to allow the claim to withstand a motion for summary judgment.  The appeals court also noted, however, that there were disputes about the safety of the path taken, whether there were sufficient safeguards, and whether pedestrian safety rules were followed.  The plaintiff’s expert opined that the student would not have been hit by the vehicle if not for the improper path and failure to follow pedestrian safety procedures.  The appeals court found that whether the defendant school district’s breach of its duty was a proximate cause of the student’s injuries and death was a fact question for the jury.

The school district also argued that the breach of duty was not the legal cause of the student’s death because legal cause is not analyzed based on the field of danger and the injury was too remote from the school district’s actions.

Washington courts have found that the policy considerations that support imposing a duty may also support recognition of legal causation.  The appeals court also noted that cases involving legal causation in the context of a school district tend to find legal causation. The appeals court therefore rejected the school district’s argument and reversed the summary judgment.

This case shows that schools have a duty to not take actions that could result in reasonably foreseeable harm to their students.  If your child has been injured due to the negligence of his or her school, an experienced Washington personal injury attorney can help you fight for the justice your child deserves.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at 206-622-6562.