What is a School’s Standard of Care?  Is it Based on Special Relationships, Public Policy, or Both?

Author: Sitar Bhatt

Guest Editor: Grace Shuman

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February 7, 2022 12:07pm

 

The relationship between students and schools in negligence actions in Arizona has been the subject of multiple recent cases.  Recently, the Arizona Court of Appeals examined the standards for determining negligence in Arizona.  In Hale v. Window Rock Unified School District (“District”), the court discussed the evolution of these school-student relationships within the context of negligence.

Further, in matters involving this relationship, the duty of care is not based on foreseeability of harm; instead it is based on special relationships or public policy exclusively.[i]  However, that does not mean foreseeability is irrelevant.  Foreseeability remains a factor in examining issues of breach and causation.[ii]

In Hale, a student alleged he was sexually assaulted by an eight-grader at the middle school during school hours on three separate occasions.[iii]  In August 2018, the Hales sued the District for negligence. The Hales alleged the District breached its duty to protect the sone form the student, who had a history of violence at school.  They claimed the school had inadequate security and supervision when the assault occurred in comparison to the District’s high school which had stricter security.

The District moved for summary judgment on the following grounds: 1) the son could not identify the student when he was deposed and the Hales offered no evidence to show the student sexually assaulted the son; 2) even if the assault happened, no evidence demonstrated the District was on notice a recognizable risk existed that an assault might occur; and 3) the District had absolute immunity from liability for exercising administrative functions.

The court rejected the District’s first argument because a genuine issue of material fact existed due to the fact the son identified the student with his mother present around the time of the last assault.  The court granted the District’s motion on the second argument.  It held the District had a general duty of care to its students.  The Hales failed to present evidence the District was on notice of a recognizable risk of harm to the son.  The court saw no evidence of the student having a history of misconduct, and the Hales’ argument shifted from alleging the student had such a history to alleging altercations generally are foreseeable in middle schools.  The shift to the more general argument was not enough to establish the District’s liability under prior rulings.[iv]  The court did not consider the third argument since it granted summary judgment on the second point.  A final judgment was entered, dismissing the complaint and all causes of action with prejudice, and the Hales timely appealed.

Upon review, the Court of Appeals vacated the summary judgment ruling and remanded the matter for further proceedings.  The Court of Appeals found the court erred in granting summary judgment because it did not apply the current law on foreseeability in negligence actions involving a school’s duty to students.  In an Arizona negligence action, the plaintiff must prove (1) the defendant had a duty to conform to a certain standard of care, (2) the defendant breached that duty, (3) the breach caused (both factually and legally) the resulting injury and (4) actual damages resulted.[v]  Per the Court of Appeals, these elements have evolved in school-student relationships.

Previously, Arizona courts often considered foreseeability of harm as a factor in determining whether the defendant owed a duty to the plaintiff.[vi]  Applying this to cases involving a school and student, courts would consider whether the defendant had notice the plaintiff was in danger. However, after Gipson, the Arizona Supreme Court held “foreseeability is not a factor to be considered by courts when making determinations of duty” and is “more properly applied to the factual determinations of breach and causation.”[vii]

Recently, this new framework was applied by the Arizona Supreme Court in Dinsmoor v. City of Phoenix, which involved a school-student relationship in which it was held a school has a duty to protect students from unreasonable risks of harm off-campus if the threat of harm arose within the school-student relationship while the student at risk remains in the school’s control.[viii]  The Supreme Court recognized the duty of care is not based on foreseeability of harm but on special relationships or public policy exclusively.[ix]

A school’s duty to its students is based on the various roles it fills as custodian, land possessor, and quasi-parental figure.  That duty is “tied to expected activities within the relationship[;]” and “encompass[es] risks such as those that occur while the student is at school or otherwise under the school’s control.”[x]  The school-student relationship compels an “affirmative duty on schools to protect students from unreasonable risks of harm” when they are at school or under its control, but this duty is “not limitless.”[xi]  The Supreme Court further held unreasonable risks are not only those “created by the individual at risk [but also] those created by a third party’s conduct.” Id. at 373.

This means reliance on cases before the Gipson ruling are no longer valid to the extent they rely on foreseeability to determine duty.[xii]  However, foreseeability is still applicable and a factor in determining issues of breach and causation.[xiii]   This analysis focuses on “whether the injury was foreseeable, and not whether the plaintiff was foreseeable.”[xiv]

 

Takeaway

In Arizona, issues of breach and causation necessarily implicate factual determinations.  These factual determinations are reserved to the fact finders and makes summary judgment inappropriate when disputed issues of material fact exist.[xv]  Going forward, the holding of foreseeability not being applicable to whether a duty existed, but as to breach and causation, is important to discuss with defense counsel.  This may be particularly helpful when considering the chances for success on a motion for summary judgment.


 

 

 

[i] Dinsmoor v. City of Phoenix, 251 Ariz. 370.375 (2021).

[ii] Quiroz v. ALCOA, Inc., 243 Ariz. 560, 565 (2018).

[iii] Hale v. Window Rock Unified School District, No. 1 CA-CV 21-0080, (Az. Ct. App. December 28, 2021).

[iv] Jesik v. Maricopa County Community College District, 125 Ariz. 543 (1980); and Hill v. Safford Unified School District, 191 Ariz. 110 (App. 1997).

[v] Quiroz, 243 Ariz. at 560.

[vi] Gipson v. Kasey, 214 Ariz. 141, 144 (2007).

[vii] 214 Ariz. at 144.

[viii] 251 Ariz. 370, 375 (2021).

[ix] Id.

[x] Id. at 275.

[xi] Id. at 373-74.

[xii] Quiroz, 243 Ariz. at 565.

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Id. at 564.

[xv] Gipson, 214 Ariz. at 144.

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