On March 4, 2021, the Washington Supreme Court held in Myers v. Ferndale School District, No. 98280-5, that the alleged acts of negligence of the school in not complying with internal policies and safety precautions for taking students on an off campus walk were not too remote or insubstantial to be the legal cause of the student’s death.
In this case, a wrongful death claim was brought on behalf of a student against the school district after a student was killed by a vehicle while on an off campus walk with his class. The trial court dismissed the negligence claim on summary judgment based on lack of duty. The Court of Appeals reversed, determining that there were sufficient factual issues on duty and proximate causation.
The Washington Supreme Court affirmed. The Supreme Court noted that while the Court of Appeals erred in analyzing legal causation, it properly concluded that material issues of fact existed concerning proximate causation. The Court found that legal causation should not be assumed to exist every time a duty of care has been established. Legal cause is determined by utilizing “mixed considerations of logic, common sense, justice, policy, and precedent.”
The Court found that sufficient evidence was presented to survive summary judgment by establishing a factual question as to whether the school district’s act of taking the students off campus led to the accident. The Court’s legal cause analysis included the underlying policy considerations for imposing liability. The Court held:
[O]ur cases establish a policy based on the special relationship where school districts may be liable for harms suffered by students even where the harm occurs off campus and is caused by the act of a third party. This flows from the custodial relationship and responsibility between schools and students. Since students are involuntarily subject to the school’s control, schools must take affirmative steps to protect students even against reasonably foreseeable acts of third parties.
Here, the off campus walk did not comply with the internal policies and safety precautions. The Court held the alleged acts of negligence were not too remote or insubstantial to be the legal cause of the student’s death. Therefore, the Court could not preclude liability as a matter of law based on legal cause.
In a concurrence, Judge McCloud disagreed with the majority’s application of its legal cause analysis. She agreed that the school district’s failure to obtain required parental permission for the walk suffices to show legal cause. However, she disagreed that the teacher’s decision to take the walk on the sidewalk, at a normal pace, in broad daylight, suffices to show legal cause. She noted that “[i]f legal cause is satisfied here, then legal cause could be satisfied for accidents occurring during many basic recreational and educational activities that students enjoy, from jump rope to dance.”
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Soha & Lang, P.S. or its clients.