The case of Meyers v. Ferndale School District involved a wrongful death claim brought on behalf of a high school student against the school district.[i] The student was killed by a vehicle while walking off campus with his P.E. class. The decedent’s estate sued the school district for negligence.
The decedent’s P.E. teacher decided to take a class of 25 students on an off-campus walk along a two-lane road with a 40 mile per hour speed limit. He explained the basic logistics to his students, including the route and which side of the road to use. The students walked along a raised sidewalk, separated from traffic by an eight-foot shoulder. The class reached the end of the sidewalk, turned around, and headed back to school. On the return trip, the students walked with their backs to oncoming traffic. The teacher walked beside the student who was killed as they approached an intersection. A vehicle left the road and crossed onto the sidewalk. The driver had fallen asleep and, within approximately one second of leaving the road, struck and killed the student.
The high school campus was a former elementary school with limited athletic facilities. Due to the limitations, the teacher sometimes took his students off campus for walks. He had used the same route some 30 times before. The walks generally took 30 minutes and were normally, were not planned in advance. The principal confirmed the teacher had asked him for permission to take students on these walks before and they had discussed general safety and the route.
The district had two policies for off-campus field trips. One policy recognized the district’s superintendent would develop procedures to ensure student safety and parent permission was obtained. The other policy provided specific procedures, including a teacher requesting permission from the principal at least one month ahead of time and sending parents a notice and permission form. The principal would review and provide the approval at least three weeks before the event and ensure parents were notified and permission slips were submitted. The principal and teacher did not consider the off-campus walk as a field trip and did not follow the procedures, or notify and obtain permission from parents.
The student’s mother sued the driver and the district, alleging negligence. To prevail in a negligence claim, a plaintiff “must show (1) the existence of a duty to the plaintiff, (2) a breach of that duty, (3) a resulting injury, and (4) the breach as the proximate cause of the injury.”[ii]
Proximate Cause – “But For” Cause and Legal Cause
Proximate cause is composed of both cause in fact and legal cause. The “but for” or cause in fact inquiry focuses on the physical connection between an act and an injury and is generally left for the jury to decide.[iii] Legal cause is, among other things, a concept that permits a court for sound policy reasons to limit liability where duty and foreseeability concepts alone indicate liability can arise.[iv] Legal cause is determined by utilizing “mixed considerations of logic, common sense, justice, policy, and precedent.”’[v]
Summary Judgment Reversed on Appeal
The district moved for summary judgment, arguing the student’s death was not foreseeable and proximate cause could not be established. The trial court granted the district’s motion, concluding that the accident was unforeseeable and did not fall within the district’s duty. The court did not reach the issue of proximate cause. The Washington Court of Appeals reversed, finding there were sufficient factual issues on the duty and proximate cause elements. The district petitioned the Washington Supreme Court for review on the proximate cause issue, conceding the duty issue.
But For Causation
On appeal, the district argued, as a matter of law, the estate could not establish any alleged breach was the cause in fact of the student’s death. The Washington Supreme Court disagreed, pointing to the estate’s evidence supporting that if the district had abided by its policies and employed other safeguards, the death could have been prevented because the student would not have been off campus, would have been in a safe location, or faced traffic while walking. Viewed in the light most favorable to the estate, the evidence was sufficient to raise a question of material fact and defeat summary judgment.
The district also argued the estate could not establish legal causation. The Washington Supreme Court disagreed. In analyzing the issue, the court pointed out, in the context of summary judgment, where factual questions existed regarding foreseeability, proximate cause was a matter for the jury.
The court then discussed some of its earlier decisions on the liability of a school district as having established a policy based on the special relationship where districts may be liable for the harms suffered by students even where the harm occurs off campus and is caused by a third party. The policy 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 against reasonably foreseeable acts of third parties.
The district argued further that liability would expose schools to nearly unlimited liability. The court rejected the argument, pointing out that school districts are not subject to civil liability if they satisfy their duty of care, for example, via proper supervision, safety precautions, and instruction. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the estate, the accident arose from an off-campus class walk that did not comply with the district’s internal policies and safety precautions. The court found that the alleged acts and negligence were not too remote or insubstantial to be the legal cause of the student’s death.
It may be difficult, at best, to obtain summary judgment dismissal of a negligence claim by attacking proximate cause. “Proximate cause” includes two concepts, “cause in fact” and “legal cause.” Both concepts are typically jury questions. Regardless, it is important to understand each when evaluating liability in a negligence case. Meyers proves how difficult it is to obtain summary judgment on proximate cause. In addition, this case is a cautionary tale for school districts and risk management – could this accident have been avoided if policies and procedures in place had been followed?
[i] Meyers v. Ferndale School District, 197 Wn.2d 281, 481 P.3d 1084 (2021).
[ii] Crowe v. Gaston, 134 Wn.2d 509, 514, 951 P.2d 1118 (1998).
[iii] Meyers, 197 Wn.2d at 289.
[iv] Meyers, 197 Wn.2d at 291.
[v] Schooley, 134 Wn.2d at 479 (quoting King, 84 Wn.2d at 250 (quoting 1 Thomas Atkins Street, Foundations of legal Liability 110 (1906))).