From the desk of Joshua Hayward: A school district is required to exercise reasonable care when supervising students within its custody. A school district has the power to control the conduct of its students while they are in school or engaged in school activities, but the duty to exercise reasonable care extends only to risks of harm that are foreseeable. A risk of harm is foreseeable if it is within the “general field of danger covered by the specific duty owed by the defendant.” To what extent will a school district be liable for the intentional actions of one of its students? Read on to find out.
Claims Pointer: Foreseeability is normally a question for the jury, making it difficult and costly, if not impossible, to win a dispositive motion for summary judgment. However, a judge may determine as a matter of law the foreseeability element of a negligence claim where “reasonable minds cannot differ.” The ability of a judge to make this determination expands the options of an insurer when attempting to evaluate a claim and how to proceed in a cost effective and timely manner.
Kok v. Tacoma Sch. Dist. No. 10, 44517-4-II, 2013 WL 5761203 (Wash. Ct. App. Oct. 22, 2013)
The estate of Samnang Kok (Estate) sued the Tacoma School District (District) for negligence after Douglas Chanthabouly shot Kok in the hallway at Foss High School on January 3, 2007. Chanthabouly was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia following a suicide attempt in January 2005. At the time of his suicide attempt, doctors noted that he was hearing voices, that he claimed to get into fights with people he did not know, and that his thoughts were illogical and his judgment bad. His psychiatrists prescribed him antipsychotics, which he took in the morning and at night, to combat his auditory hallucinations. When Chanthabouly’s care at Comprehensive Mental Health ended in January 2006, his case manager stated that he was stable while on his medication; he occasionally heard voices, but they did not tell him to harm himself and he was able to separate reality from hallucinations.
To prevail in its negligence action, the Estate had the burden to show that the District had some reason to believe Chanthabouly might be dangerous. The trial court granted summary judgment for the District, finding that Chanthabouly’s actions were not foreseeable. The Estate appealed, arguing that foreseeability is an issue for the jury. Because Chanthabouly’s behavior and medical records did not indicate that he was at risk for harming other students, the Court held that the trial court did not err in finding that his actions were not foreseeable by the District.
A school district is required to exercise reasonable care—that of a reasonably prudent person under similar circumstances—when supervising students within its custody. A school district has the power to control the conduct of its students while they are in school or engaged in school activities, and with that power goes the responsibility of reasonable supervision. But the duty to exercise reasonable care extends only to risks of harm that are foreseeable. A risk of harm is foreseeable if it is within the “general field of danger covered by the specific duty owed by the defendant.” Intentional or criminal conduct may be foreseeable unless it is “so highly extraordinary or improbable as to be wholly beyond the range of expectability.” Foreseeability is normally a jury question, but it may be decided as a matter of law where reasonable minds cannot differ.
Here, the Estate failed to show that the harm caused by Chanthabouly was foreseeable. The Estate argued that Chanthabouly’s actions were foreseeable because they were within the general field of danger covered by the specific duty owned by the District. The general field of danger was allowing a schizophrenic student in the general education population. The Estate contended that Chanthabouly’s behavior at school and his schizophrenia diagnosis presented evidence from which the District should have reasonably anticipated that he would engage in a violent act on school grounds. The Court, however, noted that there was no evidence on the record indicating that Chanthabouly might attempt to physically harm someone, let alone with a weapon. Additionally, many of Chanthabouly’s previous outbursts took place before his diagnosis or while health care providers were still adjusting his treatment.
Further, Chanthabouly’s diagnosis alone was not a reason to exclude him from a public education. Both federal and state laws require public school districts to provide appropriate education to students with disabilities. Because the standard of reasonable care is that of a reasonably prudent person in similar circumstances, these requirements are relevant to whether the District exercised reasonable care. Based on the District’s duty to provide education to Chanthabouly despite his disability, and his lack of previous violent behavior, no reasonably prudent person in similar circumstances would have foreseen that Chanthabouly would act violently towards other students. The Court affirmed the District’s summary judgment motion.
NOTE: This opinion has not been published. It is provided to demonstrate how the court approaches the issues involved in the case.
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