The Appellate Division (Second Department) has a nice decision this week discussing the limits of school liability on a playground. (Armellino v. Thomase) Sometimes a school may be liable for injuries, and sometimes not.
First, the facts: The third graders were at recess, and were permitted to separate from their other classmates. No recreational diversions were provided. The injured kid testified that he and his classmates began throwing pieces of asphalt from the track at each other. While this is obviously prohibited by school regulations, the teacher(s) assigned to supervise recess failed to notice or halt the activity. The incident escalated, the kid pulled another boy’s shirt over his head and ran away. He was chased, pushed down, broke his leg and had several surgeries.
Under this fact pattern, the school wanted summary judgment, claiming that there were no issues for a jury to decide. ‘Twasn’t our fault, they hollered.
Not quite so, said the court, defining the point thusly: Schools have a duty to “adequately supervise the students in their charge” and are subject to liability for “foreseeable injuries proximately related to the absence of adequate supervision.”
Schools, of course, are not the insurers of the safety of their students, “perfection in supervision” is not required, and schools are not liable for “every thoughtless or careless act by which one pupil may injure another.” Although a school must “take energetic steps to intervene…if dangerous play comes to its notice while children are within its area of responsibility” “school personnel cannot reasonably be expected to guard against all of the sudden, spontaneous acts that take place among students daily.”
Thus, a student’s injury that is caused by “the impulsive, unanticipated act of a fellow student ordinarily will not give rise to a finding of negligence absent proof of prior conduct that would have put a reasonable person on notice to protect against the injury-causing act.”
Because this particular case has a mixture of problems, kids chucking asphalt at each other, as well as a lack of supervision, it is left to the jury to sort out the facts of what actually happened.