Washington Schools Not Held to Heightened Duty of Care

When parents send their children to school, they expect the school to supervise and care for the children.  They do not anticipate a child being seriously injured at school.  Parents may think the school has a heightened duty of care toward the students in its care, but that may not be the case, as recently found by the Washington Supreme Court.

According to the Court’s opinion, the plaintiff was injured in her high school woodshop class while using a radial table saw.  She had been using a push stick to guide a board through the saw, but the board got stuck and she tried to dislodge it with her hand.  Her thumb was severely cut, ultimately resulting in a partial amputation.

The teacher was supervising students outside the room and could not see the table saw when the plaintiff was injured.  The teacher testified how he trained the students to use the table saw.  He showed the students how to cut, and required them to make cuts under his supervision until they did it correctly.  The students were required to take a written test.  They were also required to make about 40 to 80 cuts under the teacher’s supervision.  The plaintiff had made at least 60 cuts under the teacher’s supervision before being allowed to use the saw independently.

The teacher also testified to teaching the students to always use a push stick.  If the saw stopped or anything else unusual happened, the students were to stop and come get him.  He testified he had removed the antikickback device and splitter on the saw in question.

The plaintiff sued the school, alleging the school district was vicariously liable for the teacher’s negligence in training and supervising her use of the saw.  She also alleged negligence in maintaining the saw in removing the antikickback device and the splitter.

At trial, the parties argued about the jury instructions.  The plaintiff proposed a jury instruction stating a school district has a “special relationship” with its students and a heightened duty to protect them from foreseeable harm.  The court, however, gave an instruction defining negligence as “the failure to exercise ordinary care.”

The school argued the plaintiff was negligent in failing to use a push stick and failing to turn off the saw after the board got stuck.  The trial court gave a jury instruction over the plaintiff’s objection.

The jury found the school district was negligent but that the negligence was not the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries.  The plaintiff appealed.

The appeals court found no error in the trial court’s instruction on contributory negligence, but found there was error in the trial court’s failure to give the instruction regarding the enhanced duty of care.  Both parties appealed.

The Washington Supreme Court first considered the standard of care owed by a school to a student.  The Court determined that the school had a duty of ordinary, reasonable care.  The instruction the plaintiff requested was legally erroneous because it identified a heightened duty of care for the school.  The Court noted that in past cases it considered the relationship between the school and the student as well as the general nature of the risk.  Because the school has a custodial relationship with the students, it is not absolved of liability just because an injury results from an intervening act of a third party.  The school may still be held liable if it fails to take reasonable steps to prevent reasonably foreseeable harm, even if that harm is caused by an intervening third party.  The Court noted that most parties have a duty to use ordinary reasonable care to avoid causing harm to the plaintiff, but parties with a custodial relationship to another have a duty to protect them from unreasonable risk of harm, even that resulting from the acts of a third party.

The Court found no error in the court’s denial of the heightened duty instruction, or in the court’s use of the ordinary care instruction.

The Court then considered contributory negligence.  Generally, a defendant has the right to assert a defense of contributory fault.  The trier of fact must apportion fault to everyone that caused the plaintiff’s damages.  RCW 4.22.070.  This may include the plaintiff.  If the plaintiff is apportioned fault, his or her award is reduced proportionally.

Although the Court has held that contributory negligence is not available in some cases involving a school district, a school district is not prohibited from asserting contributory negligence in all cases involving a student.

The Court reinstated the jury’s verdict, finding that the trial court did not err in denying the heightened duty instruction or in giving the contributory negligence.

This case shows that schools are not held to a heightened duty as to their students.  Instead, they must have a duty of ordinary care to protect the students from foreseeable harm, including that caused by a third party.  Furthermore, the special relationship between a student and a school does not necessarily preclude a finding of contributory negligence on the part of the student.

If your child has been injured by the school’s negligence, a skilled Seattle personal injury attorney can help you.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC at (206) 622-6562.

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