In a case that cuts deep into a school district’s historic immunity for negligent supervision, the court in B.D. v. Downingtown Area School District, No. 15-6375 (E.D.Pa.Jun. 20, 2016), took the unusual step of finding that the improper handling of a track practice held inside and resulted in a student being injured could be a case of state-created danger under Section 1983, and falls within an exception to immunity under the Tort Claims Act, if the facts as alleged are proven to be true.
Facts Of The Case
Due to inclement weather, a high school track coach decided to have practice inside, which was typical for occasions when there was inclement weather. At one point in the practice, in which students ran through the halls of the high school, the route established by the coaches was altered so that the middle-distance runners’ and sprinters runners’ courses intersected.
After several “small collisions and/or near misses”, the plaintiff-student collided head on with another runner who weighted 60 pounds more than the student and was injured. Parents and student brought suit against the district and the coaches.
What The Court Said
The court, applying a state-created danger theory to the case under Section 1983, found that under the facts alleged the actions of the coaches “significantly increased the risk that [Student] would be injured.” Applying the four elements for a state-created danger theory, the court found that the plaintiffs alleged sufficient facts to support each.
First, the court found that there was foreseeability of the harm that occurred on the part of the coaches, explaining “[i]ndeed, experienced track coaches who are well aware that track is non-contact sport would sufficiently be put on notice of the prospective harm to their student athletes if several of those student athletes has either collided or nearly collided due to overlapping courses.”
Second, the court found that the intent requirement could be established by showing deliberate indifference and found that the coaches’ failure to change the track course after they became aware of the near misses or minor collisions was sufficient to establish the same.
Next, the parties agreed that the nature of the relationship between the coaches and the students was sufficient to show the requisite relationship necessary to prove a state-created danger claim.
The fourth prong, an affirmative use of authority, required that the plaintiffs show the district or its employees put the student in harm’s way, rather than merely failing to get the student out of harm’s way. In this case, the court found this element was met due to the fact the coaches established the running course and instructed the students to run on that course.
The court further found that the district, in addition to the coaches, might be liable because there were sufficient facts alleged, if proven, to show that the coaches were the final decision maker on these issues that were not reviewed by any higher authority or because the district knew of and consented to this conduct, namely the use of the hallways for a purpose for which it was not designed, athletic practices and the district consented to the same by not putting a stop to it when they knew this was occurring.
Moving to the Tort Claims Act, the court found that plaintiffs had alleged a sufficient case to show the exception for real property applied because the plaintiffs alleged that the accident occurred, in part, due to the flooring in the hallway and the absence of mirrors or other means for the runners to safely run through the intersection. However, the court appeared to suggest that this case just barely made out such a claim.
Bottom Line For Schools
School entities need to be aware of this new approach to injury claims and take actions to insulate themselves from liability. For example, if there are practices or customs in the school that would appear unsafe or which has led to injury or near injury, district should put a stop to them. In addition, school entities need to ensure that they know what school staff members acting on their behalf are doing and establish policies that prohibit conduct that is likely to lead to injury, so that if employees encourage students to engage in this type of behavior, the school entity can make it clear they told the employees not to do so.
School Law Bullets are a publication of KingSpry’s Education Law Practice Group. It is meant to be informational and does not constitute legal advice. John E. Freund, III, is our editor.