April 25, 2017

School Liability for Student Field Trip Injuries or Death

field trip injuries

Adequate supervision is essential for prevention of field trip injuries.

For schools, summer camps, and day care centers, one of the key functions of student supervision is to identify dangerous conditions and then either stop the activity or warn of the danger. The supervisor must take appropriate action for the protection of the children. Duty to warn contemplates both having knowledge of danger (actual or constructive notice) and having time to communicate it.  Field trip injuries are very common and there is an equal duty to protect when children are off campus but still under school supervision, such as when children are on a school-sponsored trip. Excursions off school property present special challenges. Careful planning ahead of the trip, knowing about potential safety hazards, and creating a plan to avoid or mitigate them can help to protect a child from field trip injuries and a school from liability lawsuits.

The best defense against a claim of negligence is that has one or more of the four elements of negligence has not been proven: that a duty was not owed the injured, that reasonable care was exercised in performance of the act, that the act was not the proximate cause of the injury, or that there was no injury to the plaintiff. There will be times that the school will have done everything appropriate but a child still is injured. If the school can show that it exercised reasonable care, it will go a long way toward protecting the school from a lawsuit.

 

Adequate Planning is Essential  to Minimizing Risk of Field Trip Injuries

Being alert to potentially dangerous conditions at an offsite activity starts long before the activity itself. If a trip is planned for a picnic at a local park, for instance, the teacher or administrator should visit the park ahead of time to learn the layout and identify potential dangers on the property that may lead to field trip injuries. Are there any streams a child can fall into? Are there rough trails with loose rocks and tree trunks that can cause a child to trip? Is there a highway nearby that poses a risk to a child who wanders off from the group?

Informing the chaperones and children of the terrain, the hazards, and the safety rules ahead of time is most important. In providing written rules for the children, parents, and chaperones, a school articulates its policy and the behavior it expects from adult and child participants in order to protect students from field trip injuries. Through this type of planning and communication, the school creates a foundation for protecting it from liability should something go wrong.

It also is important to ensure that there are enough adults to provide adequate supervision at the event. In thinking about how many adults are needed, consider how many children will attend, their ages, and whether they have any disabilities or behavioral issues requiring special attention. A higher duty of care exists for a student with a disability or when a child’s Individual Education Program (IEP) requires specific attention to details to keep the student safe.  If a student requires a one-on-one aide at school for additional supervision, the same requirement extends for fieldtrips and other activities to minimize risk of field trip injuries.

 

Negligent Supervision of Students on School Field Trips

One of the cardinal rules of supervision on school field trips is to ensure that children do not leave sight of chaperones. The question of liability for injuries when children leave adult supervision without permission presents two factors. First, was there negligence in supervision on site that permitted the child to leave? If so, then that breach of duty would be the proximate cause of the injury. Second, was that type of injury foreseeable? If so, then failure to supervise a child in a way that could have prevented the injury would be negligence. For the school to be held open to liability, there must be proof that lack of supervision or that negligent supervision was a proximate cause of the accident.

Individuals who perform supervisory functions must conduct themselves as a reasonable person would under similar circumstances. Inappropriate behavior on the part of the supervisor may lead not only to a negligence suit in the case of student field trip injuries or death, but also to disciplinary action against the supervisor. As an example, in a Missouri case, two coaches took six high school boys and four female cheerleaders to a meet, where they stayed overnight. Evidence indicated that the coaches left the students unsupervised and the coaches attended a party and drank alcoholic beverages, and had allowed male and female students to sleep in the same rooms. The coaches were found to have engaged in inappropriate conduct when they abandoned the students and went partying and drinking. The court found that this behavior rendered them unfit to teach or supervise students.

Special attention must be given to the planning of off-campus trips with young children. In one such case, a kindergarten teacher planned a “safety day” class trip to a city-owned parking lot. The teacher planned this event in the same way she had for years, following board of education policies and seeking parent volunteers. Parents and children met at the school and rode with the teacher on a bus to the event. Just before arrival at the event, the teacher addressed the chaperones and said, “Please keep an eye on the children. We don’t want anyone to get lost.” What she did not do — and this turned out to be the proximate cause of a student’s death — was to assign specific students to each volunteer in order to prevent the risk of student field trip injuries.

At the event, the fire company brought a fire truck, the rescue squad brought an ambulance, and the police department set up “roads” with stop signs and walkways for children to practice safe street crossing. The police brought several electric golf carts to use as “cars” to make the scene as realistic as possible. After police officers finished conducting their demonstration of safe street crossing, three children climbed onto a golf cart, one hanging onto the front of the cart. An officer had left the cart idling, key still in the ignition. The cart drove straight ahead into the ambulance, crushing and instantly killing the child hanging on the front. Because several entities were involved in the event — the school, teacher, principal, volunteer chaperones, the police and fire departments, the EMT staff, and the municipal government that provided the parking lot, assignment of liability would likely be shared. The school, however, through the teacher who organized the event, was ultimately responsible for acting within the professional standard of care for supervision of children. Had chaperones been directed to supervise specific students at all times, it is likely that when the students climbed onto the golf cart, their chaperones would have stopped them.

Cases involving class trips can become quite complex when several agencies are involved. In a drowning case, a school had selected students to attend a leadership training program off campus. The school rented a nearby YMCA campsite that had several buildings suitable for overnight guests. There was also a third agency, the company providing the training program.

In this case, several students left the dormitory in the middle of the night, went to a nearby riverbank and took several boats into the river, even though signs strictly prohibited anyone from going into the water. When several students drowned, each of the three entities and many individuals became defendants. Sorting out supervisory responsibilities between the school, the training agency and the YMCA, assessing the capacity of the students to watch out for their own safety, and many additional elements became important when determining foreseeability, responsibility for supervision, proximate cause, and liability. In this case, proximate causation was determined through an assessment of whether the students’ misconduct would likely have been prevented had the duty to supervise been discharged.

 

Contributory Negligence for Student Field Trip Injuries

Questions of liability may arise from any number of unforeseen situations. Who bears the burden of liability when a student on a daytrip rents a bicycle, fails to wear a helmet, and sustains a head injury when he runs into a tree? What is the school’s liability if a child runs ahead of her group onto a highway, only to be seriously injured by a passing car? When a child’s own actions contribute in whole or part to wrongful death or serious injury, such circumstances can be a defense in certain situations.

As a court stated, a determination of contributory negligence involves several considerations:

  • Characteristics of the child (e.g., age, intelligence, experience, knowledge, or physical condition) that would influence her ability to detect dangerous conditions or appreciate the danger of a hazard observed
  • Physical facts, i.e., the extent to which the hazard is noticeable and the degree of alertness required to avoid such a hazard
  • The environment, be it the physical activities of the individual who was injured or killed or the movement, sound, or placement of other persons and objects in the setting.

For example, in the river drowning case described earlier, the question of contributory negligence was raised because the students who drowned were 17 and 18 years old, were determined to be intelligent because they had been selected for leadership training, were physically fit, and had the ability to detect the dangerous conditions of the river. A sign prohibiting swimming was clearly visible to a reasonable person, and there were no distractions at the scene that would have caused either of the students to lose concentration or momentarily forget that entering the river presented a danger of harm.

 

Summary

Supervision of children on the premises of a school, camp, or other entity is essential for protecting the health, safety and well-being of participants. Supervision of children at school-sponsored trips presents unique challenges and must be addressed in a different way. This is especially true when a group is planning to go to a place that is unfamiliar and may present challenges and dangers not typically considered.

Start with a clear, strong policy requiring administrative approval and a plan for the trip that includes safety and emergency responses. Consider how many children will attend, their ages, and how many adults are needed to supervise the children and protect them from harm. If the area is unfamiliar, the person in charge should visit in advance, making note of potential hazards and developing a plan to protect children from those hazards. Chaperones must know as much as possible about where the group is going, the potential hazards, who the children are and whether any have a particular disability, behavior problem or other characteristic requiring special attention, and which children are under their responsibility during the trip.

As an expert witness providing services for plaintiff and defendant attorneys on issues of negligent supervision and liability, I review the policies of schools and other entities and compare them against the facts of the case. This process provides insight as to whether the entity met its own standards by following its policies and whether contributory negligence was involved, leading us toward answers about questions of liability. When the facts are clear, an opinion may be rendered as to whether the entity acted appropriately and reasonably under the circumstances and within the professional standard of care.

School and Summer Camp Liability

summer camp safety

End of School Year and Summer Camp Liability

As we approach summer, many children look forward to graduation or summer camp, or are excited about building memories and finishing the school year with exciting field trips and proms. Few schools and camps, however, consider the liability that might stem from relaxed rules, “summer fever,” and hastily organized activities. Many children are injured at this time of year when rules are relaxed and supervision is not always provided the way it should be increasing school and summer camp liability which could potentialy lead to legal action.

Graduation activities — all-night lock-in parties, in particular — present several dangers. All-night parties under school supervision are popular because they reduce the risk of alcohol and drug abuse by students who might attend other, nonsupervised events. But they expose students to a new danger: sleep deprivation, graduation’s night silent killer and the second biggest killer on our highways. Typically, event planners keep high school graduates, who have been in school since early morning, entertained from the beginning of the party until the next morning with a variety of activities. In the morning, students leave unsupervised and in a condition that research shows is similar to alcohol or drug intoxication — resulting in car accidents and death. Yet, based on data I gathered through a telephone survey of more than 300 high schools across the United States, those who plan all-night graduation parties generally do not consider fatigue and sleep deprivation as potential risks.

A few easy and effective precautions can protect schools from lawsuits. Transporting students in school buses to the event and back home in the morning can save lives. Even if transportation is provided, adopting clear policies and procedures to protect students from driving while sleep-deprived is just as important. These policies should specify that under no circumstances will any student, staff member, or parent chaperone be allowed to drive after an all-night graduation party and must make other arrangements for transportation. Schools have a duty to protect students from harm, and no reasonable educator would allow an intoxicated student get behind the wheel of a car. Why allow a sleep-deprived student to do the same?

Field trips                                                                             

The same logic follows when it comes to end-of-the-school-year field trips and other activities, as well as half days and irregular schedules. Unfortunately, there are numerous cases involving field trips that resulted in drowning deaths, sexual assault, hazing, and bullying — all resulting from the lack of organization or clear rules, too few chaperones, or inappropriate supervision of certain students. Teachers in charge need to maintain high standards of supervision for all students during field trips. Some considerations include:

  • The age of the students
  • Whether a student has a disability that requires additional supervision
  • The number of adults needed to keep an eye on all the students
  • The uniqueness of the location that might require additional supervision
  • Safety hazards at the site, such as a river, cliff, or highway

All of these issues should be considered and addressed before the administration approves a trip and sends notices home to parents. Planning, clear rules and policies, and appropriate supervision can save a student’s life and prevent a costly legal battle for the school if a child is injured while participating in the activity.

Summer camp liability

Parents should keep liability issues in mind when researching summer camps they want their children to attend. Overall, summer camp can be a valuable and fun opportunity for any child, as it is a place to try new things, meet new people, and develop as a person. On the other hand, camps can be full of hidden liability traps; sleep-away nights, horseback riding, archery, rifles, rope swings — all involving children who are supposed to be supervised by trained adults (in some circumstances, college students) — are accidents waiting to happen. Cases involving campers being injured or sexually abused as a result of poor supervision and staff training are not unusual.

To avoid exposure to a litigation-conscious population, summer camps have instituted the practice of making campers and families sign all-inclusive liability waivers. When well-written waivers have been in place, many verdicts have favored camps and other agencies that supervise children’s programs because parents released them from liability. If a camp or agency institutes clear policies, follows procedures, and does everything right, it is highly unlikely that a parent would win an injury lawsuit.

All-inclusive waivers, however, do not always protect a camp. A waiver is not valid if an injury can be attributed to the camp having breached a standard of care or if it was careless or negligent about supervision. If, for instance, the camp or agency didn’t maintain its playground equipment properly and a child was injured, the camp may be liable, invalidating the all-inclusive waiver. Depending on the specific issue of supervision (or lack of it), an all-inclusive waiver might not protect the camp.

10 considerations

Numerous elements should be reviewed when examining cases that involve injury at a school-sponsored event or summer camp. In no particular order, here are 10 key considerations:

  1. What risk-management procedures does the school or camp have in place?
  2. How are staff, counselors, and volunteers screened and selected? Are criminal background checks performed prior to supervision — even for summer jobs?
  3. How are volunteers trained before they supervise on a school- or camp-sponsored trip?
  4. What kind of discipline code is followed? Is it enforced? By whom?
  5. Are yelling, bullying, harassment, or physical force tolerated? How are incidents of violence and abuse handled?
  6. Do students or campers know whom they can talk with and what to do if they feel unsafe?
  7. Are appropriate procedures in place to prevent teachers, counselors, and volunteers from being alone, one-on-one, with children?
  8. Are at least two counselors or adults present in each cabin at a sleep-away camp?
  9. On class trips, is there adequate supervision for the size of the group? Are there, for example, at least two staff members or volunteers for class trips of eight or ten students?
  10. Are age groups reasonably established and kept separate for activities and sleeping?

Meticulous planning will not necessarily prevent lawsuits in case of an injury, but it will keep children safer and could help a school, camp, or agency avoid liability. School and camp administrators should instruct their staff to consider all the possible dangers that might cause injury to a child at an all-night graduation party, a field day activity on school grounds, a day or overnight trip, or other end-of-the-year or summer activity. Make a list of how each of these possible dangers can be avoided. Looking at the possible unfortunate outcomes of injury and planning for the protection of children is the duty of those responsible for children in schools and camps.