From the Desk of Cliff J. Wilson:
School districts have a heightened duty to keep children in their care safe. This heightened duty creates a liability exposure for the school district if a student suffers from a foreseeable risk of harm while under their supervision. In a recent case, the Oregon Court of Appeals examined the special relationship between a school district and student. The Court held that based on what the school district knew at the time of the incident, it was not foreseeable that a teacher would sexually assault a student off school premises, outside of school activities, and when the student was in the parents’ custodial control.
In a somewhat rare affirmation of a trial Court’s grant of summary judgment based on foreseeability, the Oregon Court of Appeals relied on what a school district reasonably knew or should have known to determine whether it was foreseeable that one of its students would be sexually assaulted by one of its teachers at the student’s home and while the student was in the parents’ custodial control.
F.T. v. West Linn-Wilsonville School District, 318 Or App 692 (2022).
F, a minor, attended school at West Linn High School (WLHS) after moving from California to live with his minor sister, their adult cousin (Swanson), and Swanson’s boyfriend, Olson. Peachey was a Spanish teacher at WLHS, a coach, and also advised the school’s Freshman orientation program. There had been concerns about Peachey’s teaching skills for several years. He had also been arrested twice for driving under the influence of intoxicants while employed at WLHS. Olson owned a lake house and let Peachey occasionally stay overnight to house-sit when Olson and Swanson were away.
F had met Peachey at the lake house in the summer before he started school. Peachey occasionally gave F rides to and from the school’s Freshman orientation program, basketball camp, and golf camp that summer. When school began, Peachey would also give F and his sister rides between the lake house and school when Olson and Swanson were out of town. F’s mother knew about Peachey’s house-sitting while her children were there.
During the times that Olson and Swanson were away, Peachey and F would sleep in one bedroom, and F’s sister would sleep in the other. During one of those nights, Peachey inappropriately touched F. F immediately left the bedroom and told his sister what had happened. Criminal charges were brought, and Peachey later pled guilty to sexually abusing F.
Plaintiff brought claims against the school district, including allegations that the district had a heightened duty to F based on the “special relationship” between a school and its students, and that the district was negligent in failing to investigate and protect F from Peachey’s risk to students. On appeal, Plaintiff assigned error to the trial court’s granting of the district’s motion for summary judgment on Plaintiff’s negligence claim.
Oregon common law provides that “a person whose negligent conduct unreasonably creates a foreseeable risk of harm to others and causes injury to another ordinarily is liable in damages for that injury.” Harris v. Suniga, 344 Or 301, 307, 180 P3d 12 (2008). Negligence claims have four elements that must be proven: duty, breach of the duty, causation, and harm.
When it comes to schools and their students, there is a recognized special relationship which establishes that schools owe a heightened “duty of supervision” while students are entrusted in the school’s care. This “duty of supervision” requires the district to protect its students from reasonably anticipated harm that could occur while the student is under its care, including criminal activity.
The Oregon Court of Appeals began its analysis by examining the special relationship between a school and its students to determine whether it defines or limits the district’s liability to F. The Court highlighted that the assault did not happen on school grounds, nor did it occur during school hours. Additionally, it did not take place at a school-sponsored event or at any time F was in the district’s custodial care. Rather, the assault happened at night, in a private home, after F had been returned to his parents’ custodial care.
Despite these facts, the Court continued to address Plaintiff’s argument that the district created a foreseeable risk that Peachey would sexually assault one of its students. The Court first addressed what the district knew or should have known before the assault took place. The record showed that the district knew Peachey’s teaching skills were inadequate, Peachey drove students off-campus to lunch occasionally, Peachey’s classroom had photos that showed him spending time with students outside of school hours, Peachey would hug students, and Peachey had two DUIs. These facts, the Court concluded, would permit a jury to conclude that Peachey was a substandard teacher who exercised poor judgment in taking students to lunch and did not follow proper teacher/student boundaries. The record would also support a finding that Peachey had alcohol abuse issues. Thus, if this case were about a student being injured in a car accident that occurred while Peachey was driving to or from an off-campus lunch, then a jury could conclude that such an accident was foreseeable. But that was not the case here. Without any evidence that could show Peachey had a history of sexually abusing children, or that a district employee was aware of Peachey sleeping in the same bedroom as a student, the record did not support the allegation that the district should reasonably have foreseen that Peachey posed a risk of sexual assault to its students.
The Big Picture:
In examining the foreseeability of the type of harm that befell F, even under the school district’s heightened duty to its students, the Court of Appeals decision hinged on what the record established the district knew at the time of the assault, and that the assault occurred away from the school, at night, and in the home where the student lived. This case reaffirms that while a school does have a special duty to its students, that duty is still limited by the element of foreseeability of the type of harm that the student suffered.