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School District Liability for Student Injury Weighed

We send our children to school with the expectation that the grounds are reasonably safe and the kids will be properly supervised. When this is not the case and an injury results, it could be grounds for litigation. 

Generally, personal injury lawsuits against school districts tend to be tricky because, first and foremost, public schools are agents of the government. As such, they are entitled to certain protections, such as sovereign immunity, which is only waived under certain circumstances. Still, it’s usually accepted that there is a special relationship between school staffers and students, and thus a duty to protect.

In a recent case out of Wyoming, the question was whether a school district should be liable for injuries suffered to a child who fell while playing on a patch of ice on school grounds during school hours. The Wyoming Supreme Court, in reviewing the lower court’s ruling, analyzed four different elements of this case and determined the answer to the question of liability was: No. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean plaintiffs in similar situations should be discouraged. Every case is going to involve its own specific set of facts, and also, laws on premises liability and duty of care can vary to some degree from state-to-state. Consulting with an experienced student injury lawyer is really the best way to determine whether you have a case.

In this situation, it was a February morning in 2014 when the plaintiff, in middle school, was walking with his classmates from the gymnasium after physical education class back to their regular classroom, which was in a building next door. Plaintiff and his friends saw a patch of ice on the sidewalk and started to run and slide on it. The students created a contest to see who could slide the farthest. Then, they created a contest to see who could do the “coolest trick.” Plaintiff was the second to take his turn. However, he lost his balance and fell. As a result of that fall, he suffered a broken tooth, a fractured nose and cuts across his face.

The patch of ice described was large and had varying degrees of thickness. It was obvious, and wasn’t in any way hidden so that students or others would not have been able to see it. It didn’t appear as if anyone had done anything to make the accumulation of ice in that spot worse than it would have been naturally, though there were some students who had sprinkled snow from the grass onto the ice so that it would be more slippery. The school had applied salt to the patch of ice earlier in the morning, but it had not dissolved the ice.

Plaintiff’s parents filed a personal injury lawsuit against the school on his behalf, alleging negligence for failure to remove the ice that had built up on the sidewalk.

The district court granted summary judgment to the school, and the state supreme court affirmed.

When plaintiff appealed, he did so on the assertion that:

  • The failure to file a statement of undisputed material facts was not fatal to his claim;
  • The question of whether the accumulation of ice and snow was natural vs. unnatural was a question of fact for the jury, not a question of law for the judge;
  • The town’s snow removal ordinance heightened the school’s duty of care to remove the ice patch in question;
  • The issue of plaintiff’s comparative negligence (the degree to which he was responsible for his own injuries) was a question of fact for the jurors, not a question of law for the judge.

The court ruled there was no dispute the danger was obvious. In fact, that’s why plaintiff and his friends chose to slide there. However, there was no issue of fact as to whether the accumulation of ice was natural, so that issue could be decided as law. The town’s snow removal ordinance didn’t apply here because there was no duty, as noted that the ice patch was both natural and obvious.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

RB, Jr. v. Big Horn County School District, Feb. 7, 2017, Wyoming Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Baugh v. Cuprum – $11 Million Ladder Injury Verdict Affirmed, Jan. 28, 2017, Orlando School Injury Lawyer Blog

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