From the desk of Tom McCurdy: Last year the Washington Court of Appeals issued an opinion that addressed when a school district can be held liable for the injury or death of its students. The school district petitioned the Washington Supreme Court for review in hopes that the court would find that the school district’s conduct was not the cause of the student’s death.
Claims Pointer: The Washington Supreme Court held that the school district cannot escape liability, at least not at this stage. The court found that the connection between the school district’s conduct and the student’s death was not too remote or insubstantial to be considered the legal cause of the student’s death. The court further clarified that the proper assessment of this connection needs to focus on more than just foreseeability, rather a broad examination of policy considerations for imposing liability must take place.
Meyers v. Ferndale Sch. Dist., No. 98280-5, 2021 Wash. LEXIS 147 (March 4, 2021).
In this case, a Ferndale School District PE teacher took his class of 25 students on an off campus walk. The PE teacher and his students walked down a busy road adjacent to the school as part of their physical activity for the day. This road had varying speed limits, but at the area where the students crossed the road, the speed limit was 40 mph. As the students were heading back to the school, a group of students were on the sidewalk preparing to cross the street. At this time, a vehicle operated by an individual who allegedly fell asleep, veered onto the sidewalk and struck the students. Sadly, Gabriel Anderson and another student died as a result of this collision. The school district had two policies that applied to off campus field trips, which required certain precautions be taken, including obtaining parents’ permission. However, the school’s principal and the PE teacher did not believe this policy applied to the off-campus walks; therefore, parents’ permission was not requested for this activity.
The personal representative of Anderson’s estate brought a wrongful death lawsuit against the school district. The defendant school district moved for summary judgment arguing that the plaintiff could not establish foreseeability and proximate cause. The trial court agreed and granted the motion. The plaintiff appealed and the Washington Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision, finding there were genuine issues of material fact for the jury to decide regarding foreseeability and proximate cause. The defendant school district petitioned the Washington Supreme Court for review solely on the proximate cause issue. The Washington Supreme Court granted the petition for review and issued this decision, clarifying how Washington courts should view proximate cause.
For a negligence action, a plaintiff needs to establish duty, breach, causation, and damages. In this opinion, duty was not at issue, but the court briefly touched on this element to provide context for the rest of the decision. For some background, in the school setting, a school district does owe a duty to its students to anticipate and protect against potential harms. This duty extends to harm inflicted by third parties, as long as the harm is reasonably foreseeable. Therefore, the inquiry into whether a duty exists strongly depends on if the harm was foreseeable. The court then went onto address the main issue on appeal, proximate cause.
Proximate cause is generally a question for the jury and is composed of two types of cause: cause in fact and legal cause. Cause in fact—or “but for” causation—is what people generally think about when assessing if someone’s conduct caused an injury. This analysis focuses on the physical connection between the act and the injury. In this case, the court found that there was enough conflicting evidence that the question of cause in fact should go to the jury.
The other aspect of proximate cause, legal cause, is much more abstract. Legal cause is a policy determination about whether the defendant’s acts should result in liability for the harm. Washington case law acknowledges that the questions of duty and legal cause are interrelated. However, in this opinion, the Washington Supreme Court clarified that duty and legal cause are distinct issues that require separate inquiries. Although there are some considerations, such as foreseeability, that are relevant to both the duty analysis and the legal cause analysis, the legal cause analysis is much broader. Legal cause requires a policy judgment as to whether legal liability should attach. Courts should not conclude that legal causation is automatically satisfied by the existence of a duty. Rather, legal cause is determined by utilizing “mixed considerations of logic, common sense, justice, policy and precedent.” The main question to focus on is whether the connection between the resulting harm and the conduct of the defendant is “too remote or insubstantial to impose liability.”
After the Washington Supreme Court’s clarification that legal cause requires a broad analysis, the court addressed the underlying policy considerations for imposing liability in this case. Washington case law acknowledges that a special relationship exists between schools and students given the distinct nature of the school setting. School districts have a custodial relationship over their students, where the school staff members and teachers essentially step in for parents while the children are at school. Even further, students are involuntarily subjected to the school’s activities, rules, and directions. Therefore, the school district must take affirmative steps to protect the students from reasonably anticipated dangers and a school district could be liable for not taking these steps.
Ultimately, the court found that the connection between the student’s death and the negligent conduct alleged in this case, taking a walk off campus without the adequate safety precautions, was not too remote or insubstantial to impose liability on the defendant. Thus, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed the court of appeals decision—after heavily criticizing the court of appeals’ characterization of the legal cause—and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings.
THE BIG PICTURE
The Washington Supreme Court’s clarification of the proper legal cause analysis may provide more room for defendants to argue that the connection between their conduct and the resulting harm was too remote or insubstantial to impose liability. This decision emphasizes that the establishment of a duty is not determinative of whether legal cause is also established. Thus, at the very least, a separate and distinct inquiry into legal cause will have to take place which allows for the consideration of broader policy arguments than just foreseeability.