Washington Case Law Update: Jury must be Instructed on School District’s Enhanced Duty of Care
From the desk of Thomas McCurdy: Under Washington law, school districts have a special duty to protect students in their custody and care. When a trial court fails to instruct the jury on this enhanced duty of care, it constitutes a legal error that may warrant a new trial. Read on to learn more.
Claims Pointer: In this case arising out of a student’s injury in shop class, the Washington Court of Appeals held that the trial court should have instructed the jury on the school district’s enhanced duty of care. Because the court also determined that if the trial court had given the proper instructions, the result may have been different, the error was prejudicial and required a new trial. The case provides insight into the important issue of how Washington courts will evaluate a school district’s enhanced duty of care.
Hendrickson v. Moses Lake School District, No. 34197-6-III, Washington Court of Appeals, Div. III (June 8, 2017)
Heidi Jo Hendrickson (“Hendrickson”) was a fifteen-year-old freshman in high school when she injured herself on a table saw while working on a project for shop class. She had been using a push stick to guide a board through a table saw when the board came to a stop. After putting down the push stick, she tried to wiggle the board free and cut her right thumb. Although her shop teacher could see the table saw area at the time when the injury occurred, he was standing in a fenced area outside the back of the room. As a result of Hendrickson’s injury, doctors amputated her thumb to her first joint. She sued the Moses Lake School District (the “District”), alleging that the District was negligent in failing to use and maintain required safety equipment and guards, failing to provide Hendrickson with reasonable instruction, and/or failing to reasonably supervise her on the use of the table saw. The District raised Hendrickson’s contributory negligence as an affirmative defense, claiming that her injuries were proximately caused by her failure to use a push stick while operating the table saw and to turn off the table saw after the board became stuck in the saw.
Before the case was submitted to the jury, the trial court heard extensive arguments on jury instructions. Hendrickson argued that the jury should be instructed on the District’s enhanced duty of care based on the District’s special relationship with students in its custody, but the court instead instructed the jury only on the ordinary principles of duty and contributory negligence. Hendrickson filed a written exception to the court’s refusal to give the special relationship instruction. The trial court also instructed the jury on the District’s affirmative defense of Ms. Hendrickson’s contributory negligence, and the District emphasized Hendrickson’s alleged contributory negligence in its closing argument. The jury found the District was negligent, but that the District’s negligence was not the proximate case of Hendrickson’s injury. The court entered judgment on the verdict, and Hendrickson appealed.
Under Washington law, jury instructions are sufficient if they are supported by the evidence, allow each party to argue its theory of the case, are not misleading, and properly inform the trier of fact of the applicable law when read as a whole. If any of these elements are missing, the jury instruction is erroneous. If the jury instruction misstates the law, it is presumed erroneous and is grounds for reversal unless the error was harmless.
The Washington Court of Appeals quickly discarded any dispute over whether the trial court should have issued an instruction explaining the District’s heightened duty of care. According to the court, school districts have a special relationship with students in their custody, and based on this relationship, school districts have a duty to anticipate dangers which may reasonably be anticipated and to take precautions to protect students in their custody from such dangers. Because jurors are entitled to receive instructions on the unique nature of a school district’s duty of care, and because the failure to provide such an instruction is error, the trial court should have provided an instruction explaining the District’s enhanced duty of care. Thus, the only remaining question on this issue was whether the absence of such an instruction prejudiced the jury’s verdict, which would require reversal.
The District argued that because the jury found the District negligent but determined that the District’s negligence was not the proximate cause of Hendrickson’s injury, the jury’s verdict would have been the same regardless of whether the jury was instructed on the District’s enhanced duty of care. The Court of Appeals disagreed, explaining that had the jury been instructed correctly, it would have understood that the District had a heightened obligation that also encompassed protecting Hendrickson against reasonably foreseeable self-inflicted harm. This understanding could have led the jury to believe that the shop teacher and the District should have done more to prevent Hendrickson’s injuries. Because the jury’s assessment of proximate cause and the final verdict could have been different, the error of failing to instruct the jury on the District’s enhanced duty of care was prejudicial error warranting reversal. (Notably, one judge dissented on this point, arguing that the error was harmless because the jury concluded that Hendrickson was the cause of her own injury.)
Hendrickson also argued on appeal that the District’s enhanced duty prohibited the District from asserting contributory negligence as an affirmative defense. The Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that in Washington, the default rule is contributory negligence. While the District owed Hendrickson a heightened duty of care, Washington case law made it clear that the District was not a guarantor of student safety, and juries are permitted to consider a student’s own misconduct or negligence in assessing issues such as proximate cause or damages.
Because the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury on the District’s enhanced duty of care was prejudicial error, the judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.
View full opinion at: https://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/341976_pub.pdf
Case updates are intended to inform our clients and others about legal matters of current interest. They are not intended as legal advice. Readers should not act upon the information contained in this article without seeking professional counsel.
To email Thomas McCurdy, please click here.
To view the most recent Oregon Case Law Update: Oregon’s $500,000 Noneconomic Damages Cap Remains Untouched by Legislation, please click here.