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Keeping children safe in schools, preschool and daycare programs, summer camps, on playgrounds, and other locations is a primary responsibility of those who administer such programs. When a child becomes injured and the claim is negligent supervision, a school or other agency will have a greater chance of prevailing when it has clear policies and enforces them. In school premises liability lawsuits plaintiffs are more likely to prevail when a facility fails to maintain its campus and equipment, does not have a regular inspection plan, and does not instruct and supervise students in the safe and appropriate use of equipment. The greatest deterrent to litigation with respect to premises and equipment liability is to keep the building and grounds free from hazards, maintain them on a regular basis, and ensure that that equipment is safe and properly installed, used, and maintained.

School Policies and School Premises Liability

In-house policies become the standard by which schools and other agencies assure the health, safety, and wellbeing of children. These policies mirror professional standards of care in the field as well as federal, state, and local standards. Development and implementation of policies that address circumstances that may give rise to a child's injury are important components of a defense against school premises liability. Equally important, these policies should be enforced.

For example, electronic equipment in a classroom is often plugged into power strips. Young children are curious. They like to explore how things work. Children have been shocked when a staff member did not cover unused outlets on a strip. Even if the administration has no knowledge of a teacher using a power strip, a policy prohibiting their use without the express permission of the administration gives the administration control. If a teacher ignores the policy, uses a power strip in the classroom, and a child is injured by it, the school might argue that it had the appropriate policy but the teacher failed to follow it.

The existence of a policy alone, and even communicating it to staff, however, might not be enough to persuade a jury that the school had done all it could to prevent injury. The plaintiff might be able to demonstrate that the policy stated that regular inspections would take place during the school year but, in this case, none were completed. The question might then arise: Had inspections been conducted as required by policy, and had the power strip been removed from the classroom in an inspection, would the child have been injured? Having a written policy without enforcing it will not strengthen a defendant's position.

Maintaining School Grounds to Avoid School Premises Liability Lawsuits

When a child is injured after falling 10 feet from a playground slide to the unpadded ground below, the injured party may claim that the school or camp failed to maintain safe premises or breached a safety standard. Did the school allow the play area to become unsafe by not replacing a shock-absorbing surface that washed away over time? This is an example of a maintenance issue that required attention, lead to an injury and left the school vulnerable to potential school premises liability lawsuits. Defective equipment and unsafe premises cause untold litigation expenses in the United States and Canada.

When children are involved, a majority of defective-equipment allegations involve playground equipment. In a case of a 4-year-old who badly mangled his finger on a merry-go-round (Fetters v. City of Des Moines), the plaintiff alleged that the merry-go-round was defective because of improper maintenance. In another case involving negligent maintenance (Rich v. City of Goldsboro), the plaintiff was thrown from a see-saw that was worn and wobbly and that lacked handholds or stabilizing devices. In fact, nearly every time a plaintiff's allegation of defective equipment prevails, the proximate cause is failure to adequately maintain equipment.

An inspection system is the most important component of maintaining safe premises and for managing risk. Inspections play an important role in the discovery of conditions, and "notice" is an important legal concept regarding liability for conditions of premises. Notice is information - knowledge of the existence of a situation. For example, if the head custodian learned of a missing end cap on a slide, then he or she is held to have notice of the condition.

Whenever children are around equipment of any kind - a slide on the playground, a table saw in shop class, folding tables in a cafeteria, or a pair of scissors in art class - teachers, camp counselors, and program administrators, as well as custodians and bus drivers, have a duty to ensure that equipment is always in top condition, maintained regularly, or taken out of service when in need of repair. A teacher's job description may include a requirement to inspect and maintain equipment in the classroom on a regular basis. This requirement becomes a professional standard of care in that school - and one that can be referred to in litigation.

In a real case involving a student and a table saw, the woodshop teacher knew that a bolt was missing from the saw blade guard. Rather than referring to the manufacturer's requirements for a replacement, he rooted through a drawer in the shop, found a bolt he assumed would hold the guard to the saw table, and replaced it. Later, when a student was using the saw, the bolt came loose, the guard jammed, and the student lost three fingers. After thousands of dollars' worth of surgery, the student filed a lawsuit against the school and the teacher.

Did the teacher adhere to the professional standard of care? Or was the standard breached when he failed to maintain the saw, as required by his job description? Did he breach the professional standard of care when he used a bolt not approved by the manufacturer? In this situation, the teacher ignored the standard outlined in his job description and deliberately used a bolt not recommended by the manufacturer. The saw should have been taken out of service until it was properly repaired. If this school premises liability case had not settled, the school would have had to persuade a jury that even though the saw was not maintained properly and the teacher used the wrong bolt, the student was at fault. It's unlikely a jury would have agreed.

Negligent Supervision of Students

Folding cafeteria tables that are improperly stowed, TVs atop carts incapable of supporting them, and chemicals left in reach of students all place children in harm's way, with the foreseeability that someone could become injured. Staff must constantly supervise the premises and the use of equipment. Knowing what to be aware of in environments inhabited by children and how to safeguard children in those environments are among most important responsibilities of adults who are ultimately responsible for children's safety.

When a potentially dangerous situation is identified, there are several alternatives:

  • Discontinue the activity. Do not allow activity in an area where children would be exposed to the danger
  • Modify the activity. Adjust the manner of play to avoid contact with the defect
  • Temporarily repair the defect and continue the activity with care. For example, a hole in a floorboard might have a temporary covering in order to protect students from injury on the spot. This may be fine in the moment, as long as students are carefully supervised, but after the activity is over, the temporary floor covering should not be left in place and considered a "fix." Once a supervisor or administrator has notice of the hole and the temporary fix action to correct the hazard must be taken. Inaction is itself an act that can enhance the likelihood of injury for which the person is personally liable.

The court has established two types of torts: manufacture of defective products and the use of products. With respect to the latter, a suit can be brought on negligence if the user of a product is injured, regardless of whether the product has been associated with liability claims. Consider a TV cart that had been labeled dangerous by the Consumer Product Safety Commission: Its design caused it to tip over easily, but no product liability claims had been filed against the manufacturer. In one real case, a third-grade teacher instructed two students to return a TV on top of this cart to a hall closet. Being third graders, one child pushed the cart from the back while the other rode up front, placing his feet on the bottom shelf and holding onto both sides. When the child pushing the cart let go of it, the cart tipped in the direction of the student hanging off the front and the 55-pound TV struck the other student in front in the head, causing permanent injury.

A claim of negligent supervision was filed against the teacher, the principal, and the board of education. The question became: Was it appropriate and reasonable for the teacher to send the two boys, unsupervised, into the hallway to return the TV? Information the teacher knew about one of the students became another factor in this case: The boy had behavior problems and been corrected on numerous occasions. Did the teacher breach a professional standard of care by sending these students, one of whom she knew was likely to misbehave in the hallway, to take the TV to the closet?

When children are engaged in activities under supervision, the school or other agency has the responsibility for ensuring that equipment is appropriate for the child's age, size, skill level, and general capacity, as well as how it will be used. There is also a duty to instruct the child in its proper use and dangers of misuse, and to monitor for proper use. The person instructing the child must also be alert to defective equipment. The school district has the authority to purchase and furnish equipment, but teachers have the responsibility for proper selection, inspection, and use of equipment. Legally, this is important, because if equipment is used for a purpose not in accord with its instruction, product liability is not at issue. Moreover, an injured child does not assume any risks if the equipment used is defective or improper for the activity. An improper type of jump rope, for instance, was alleged to be the cause of injury in a physical education class when an 8-year-old was injured. The 6-foot rope had wooden handles, one of which hit a student in the teeth when it was jerked from a teacher's hand. In this case, the defendant prevailed.

Conclusion

Schools, their administration, and staff, along with adults who administer preschools daycare centers, summer camps, and similar programs have a responsibility to protect children in their care from harm in order to avoid school premises liability lawsuits and negligent supervision of students claims. Policies that set standards for ensuring safety and maintaining the building, grounds, and equipment are a start, but those policies must be enforced and students appropriately supervised during activities, especially ones including specific equipment. Negligent maintenance and failure to supervise children in the proper use of equipment are common reasons policies fail and can lead to conditions that give rise to student injury and school liability lawsuits. School and agencies should take every reasonable step to avoid these potentially costly traps.

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Dr. Edward Dragan, provides education expert consultation for high-profile and complicated cases. As an educator and administrator, he has more than 35 years' experience as a teacher, principal, superintendent and director of special education. He also has served as a state department of education official.

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