11.05.2018

Washington Supreme Court Holds that School Districts Owe an Ordinary Duty of Care to Students

On November 1, 2018, the Washington Supreme Court held in Hendrickson v. Moses Lake School District, No. 94898-4, that school districts are subject to an ordinary duty of care, not a heightened duty of care, in an unanimous opinion.

In this case, a student injured herself in a woodshop class when she did not properly follow procedures with a table saw while the teacher was supervising other students.  The student sued the school district, alleging that it was vicariously liable for the teacher’s negligence.  At trial, the student proposed a jury instruction that imposed a heightened duty of care, which the trial court declined to use.  After the jury found that the school district’s negligence was not the proximate cause of the student’s injuries, the student appealed.  The intermediate court of appeals reversed in part, holding that the trial court should have provided a jury instruction imposing a heightened duty of care.  The school district then appealed to the Washington Supreme Court.

The Washington Supreme Court noted that, although a party is not typically required to take affirmative action to protect another party from harm, there is a special relationship between school districts and students.  School districts have “a duty to protect their students from foreseeable harm, even when that harm is caused by third parties.”  However, this special relationship only requires school districts “to exercise such care as an ordinarily responsible and prudent person would exercise under the same or similar circumstances.”  Accordingly, the trial court did not err by providing a jury instruction that imposed an ordinary duty of care, instead of the proposed heightened duty of care.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Soha & Lang, P.S. or its clients.

Posted by Sarah Davenport