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New Case Narrows Arizona School District Liability

Cases involving school districts’ liability are on the rise across the country. The Arizona Supreme Court recently drew a clearer line for future litigants, narrowing the duties of schools. In a case where a high school student killed his classmate off-campus, the Court held that there was no duty because students had safely left the school’s control.

Dinsmoor v. City of Phoenix came before the Arizona Supreme Court to determine whether a school district may have owed a duty to its students when they were off campus.i In 2014, a high-school student shot and killed his classmate/girlfriend (decedent), then killed himself. The shooting occurred off campus at a friend’s house. Leading up to the shooting, the decedent had received text messages from the student earlier the same day. The text messages the decedent received indicated he might harm his ex-girlfriend, but at no point did the message ever indicate the student wanted to harm the decedent. She brought the text messages to her school’s attention and was asked directly if she was afraid or fearful of the student, but she said she was not. The school implemented a safety plan for the ex-girlfriend because of the messages, but the school did not implement any safety plan for the decedent.ii

The decedent’s mother, Diannah Dinsmoor (Plaintiff), brought claims for wrongful death, negligence, and gross negligence against the Deer Valley Unified School District, the school’s principal, and the school’s principal (collectively “PVUSD”).iii Plaintiff also brought claims against an off-duty police officer who was at the school, Phoenix Police Officer Palmer, and the City of Phoenix.iv

The superior court granted judgment in favor of the defendants, finding they owed no legal duty to the girlfriend or Plaintiff.v The Court of Appeals agreed with the superior court that Plaintiff failed to establish there was a duty to protect the classmate. However, the Court of Appeals disagreed with the superior court and found PVUSD had a duty to the decedent based on the school-student relationship.vi

The Supreme Court determined the school-student relationship imposes an affirmative duty on schools to protect student from unreasonable risks of harm.vii This duty recognized the school is a custodian of students, a land possessor who opens the premises to a significant public population, and acts partially in the place of parents. PVUSD argued the school-student duty exists only when a student is endangered while attending school during school hours or participating in off-campus, school-sponsored activities. Plaintiff stated the duty exists regardless of where and when the student suffers injury if the school learned of an unreasonable risk of harm to the student while the school exercised custody and control over her.viii

The Supreme Court found in the school-student relationship, the duty encompasses risks that occur while the student is at school or otherwise under the school’s control.ix The Supreme Court followed and cited the similar reasoning found in a prior case, Monroe v. Basis Sch., Inc., which stated, “[w]here a duty arises from a special relationship, the duty is tied to expected activities within the relationship” and in the school-student relationship, “the duty of care is bounded by geography and time, encompassing risks such as those that occur while the student is at school or otherwise under the school’s control.”x

Monroe was at odds with another case, Hill v. Safford Unified School Dist.xi In Hill , the court expanded on the duty owed by schools during a school-student relationship, finding that the school owed a duty to its students once the students left the school’s control.xii The Arizona Supreme Court here has now rejected the Hill court’s reasoning and disapproves of any finding for a duty to a school to its students when they have safely left the school’s control.xiii

Here, the Arizona Supreme Court found that in the school-student relationship, a duty is created to protect students from unreasonable harm that arises from that relationship.xiv A key issue to determine an unreasonable harm is whether a known and tangible risk arose that endangers the student while under the school’s custody and control. Further, while students are at school, they are deprived of the protection of their parents or guardians. The school has an affirmative duty to protect them until they are safely released from the school’s custody and control.xv

The Arizona Supreme Court declined to draw a bright-line rule barring every scenario when a student suffers harm while outside the school’s supervision and control.xvi The Court reasoned that unique circumstances may arise where a school has a duty to protect students from risks that occur while under school supervision and control even though such risks result in harm when students are outside school supervision and control.xvii

 

Takeaway

With the number of incidents and cases involving school districts across the country, this case ends the expansion of duty implemented on a school based on Hill . Dinsmoor rejects the Hill reasoning and narrows the duty of a school to what occurs within the temporal and physical confines of school, agreeing with Monroe . Every matter is different, and it may be the case in a unique situation that a school could still have a duty to its students outside of school.

Dinsmoor helps narrow down the range of situations where a school could be liable. It prevents a school from being liable for a majority of incidents which occur off campus or outside of school hours. This should provide clarity, narrowing the issues to focus on for creation of a duty and filing appropriate motions for summary judgment.

i Dinsmoor v. City of Phoenix , CV-20-0214-PR, 2021 WL 3440670 (Ariz. Aug. 6, 2021).

ii Id.

iii Dinsmoor v. City of Phoenix , CV-20-0214-PR, 2021 WL 3440670 (Ariz. Aug. 6, 2021).

iv Id.

v Dinsmoor v. City of Phoenix , CV-20-0214-PR, 2021 WL 3440670 (Ariz. Aug. 6, 2021).

vi Id.

vii Dinsmoor v. City of Phoenix , CV-20-0214-PR, 2021 WL 3440670 (Ariz. Aug. 6, 2021).

viii Id.

ix Dinsmoor v. City of Phoenix , CV-20-0214-PR, 2021 WL 3440670 (Ariz. Aug. 6, 2021).

x Monroe v. Basis Sch., Inc. , 234 Ariz. 155, 318 P.3d 871 (App. 2014).

xi , Hill v. Safford Unified School Dist. 191 Ariz. 110, 952 P.2d 754 (App. 1997).

xii Id.

xiii Dinsmoor v. City of Phoenix , CV-20-0214-PR, 2021 WL 3440670 (Ariz. Aug. 6, 2021).

xiv Dinsmoor v. City of Phoenix , CV-20-0214-PR, 2021 WL 3440670 (Ariz. Aug. 6, 2021).

xv Id.

xvi Dinsmoor v. City of Phoenix , CV-20-0214-PR, 2021 WL 3440670 (Ariz. Aug. 6, 2021).

xvii Id.

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