From the desk of Thomas McCurdy: Since our first days as law school students in torts class, the elements of negligence have held strong: duty, breach, causation, and damages. Without evidence to create a question of material fact as to each of these elements, negligence claims can be resolved at summary judgment. However, as we are reminded in this recent opinion from the Washington Court of Appeals, the elements of duty and proximate cause are often hotly contested.
Case Pointer: The Washington Court of Appeals recently revisited the standard for summary judgment in negligence cases in the context of a “special relationship” after a student was hit by a car and killed while out on a walk with his physical education (PE) class. According to this divisions of the Appeals Court, the trial court granted summary judgment based on an erroneous foreseeability determination. In determining that the harm suffered was not foreseeable, the trial court focused its determination on the specific harm that befell the student, as opposed to the general field of danger created when the PE teacher took his class off-campus. The trial court should have focused on the latter, and as a result of its failure to do so, summary judgment in favor of Ferndale was reversed.
Meyers v. Ferndale Sch. Dist., 2020 Wash. App. LEXIS 277, 2020 WL 614329 (Feb. 10, 2020).
This decision arose from a wrongful death suit brought against the Ferndale School District (“Ferndale”) by Bonnie Meyers as personal representative of the Estate of Gabriel Anderson. Gabriel was a student at Windward High School in Ferndale, WA. During PE class, the teacher decided to take his students on an unplanned walk off campus. The teacher did not observe established district policies regarding such trips. For example, he did not obtain the permission of any student’s parent or guardian. The route of Ritchie’s walk took the students along a busy road with no crosswalks and a speed limit of 40 mph. While crossing the road back to campus, Anderson and several other students were struck by a SUV. The driver had fallen asleep at the wheel. Anderson and one other student were killed.
In response to the negligence-based wrongful death claim leveled against it by the PR of Anderson’s estate, Ferndale moved for summary judgment on two theories. The first – that the collision was not foreseeable thus giving no rise to a duty as to Ferndale to protect against it – was the grounds for the trial court’s granting of the motion. On appeal, Meyers asserted that the trial court erred in concluding that the deadly collision was not foreseeable because it had focused on the specific harm rather than the general field of danger. The Court of Appeals agreed. As to proximate cause, the Court of Appeals agreed that there was, at least, sufficient evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact such that summary judgment was improper on those grounds.
Generally there is no duty to prevent a third person from causing physical injury to another except where a special duty exists between the defendant and the third party or the foreseeable victim of the third party’s conduct. Such a special relationship exists between school districts and their students. Hendrickson v. Moses Lake Sch. Dist., 192 Wn.2d 269, 276 (2018). Thus, the issue turned on foreseeability. The test does not involve assessing the specific sequence of events leading to the harm, but rather “whether the actual harm fell within a general field of danger which should have been anticipated.” Id (quoting McLeod v. Grant County Sch. Dist. No. 1218, 42 Wn.2d 316, 321 (1953).
The trial court’s memorandum decision concluded that it was not foreseeable to Ferndale that the specific mechanism of injury causing Anderson’s death would occur. The Court of Appeals disagreed on the grounds that the trial court was not in line with the principles established McLeod and reinforced in Hendrickson. After reviewing the evidence introduced by Meyers in opposition to Ferndale’s motion for summary judgment, the Court of Appeals concluded that there was, at the very least, a question of fact as to whether it was foreseeable that having Anderson walk along a public roadway off campus could result in him being struck by a vehicle.
Finally, the Court of Appeals considered Ferndale’s alternative argument that, even if there was a duty, that its breach of the duty was not a proximate cause of Anderson’s death. As to proximate cause, there was a dispute of material fact as to whether Ferndale’s breach was a “but-for” cause of Anderson’s death. As to its argument against legal cause, Ferndale had ignored Washington Supreme Court precedent which established that “any consideration of the legal cause question should … begin with a review of the duty question.” Lowman v. Wilbur, 178 Wn.2d 165, 169 (2013).
Ultimately, Ferndale could not show two of two critical items. First, it could not establish that the general field of danger created by taking a group of high school students on an off campus walk along a busy road was not foreseeable. Second, it could not establish that its breach of duty was not the cause of Anderson’s death. The lower court ruling of summary judgment in its favor was reversed.
This might not be the last word on this controversial decision. The school district has filed a Petition for Review in the Washington Supreme Court. Stay tuned.