The Issue of Holding Schools Liable for Injuries to Students
In the aftermath of the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, our firm has received inquiries into the obligations and duties of schools and educators to safeguard children, and whether schools even have a duty to students. The answer is yes: Florida law imposes a duty on schools to take reasonable steps to protect the safety of students and a negligent failure to act in carrying out this duty can give rise to a cause of action.
A school’s duty towards students comes from the fact that Florida courts recognize a special relationship between schools and their students. Mandatory schooling in Florida and the entire United States forces parents to rely on teachers and schools to protect their children during school and school activity. This creates a special relationship because the school functions in the place of the parents (known as the in loco parentis doctrine) during the school day and during school-sponsored activities. Limones v. School Dist. of Lee County, 161 So. 3d 384, 390 (Fla. 2015); Nova Se. Univ., Inc. v. Gross, 758 So. 2d 86 (Fla. 2000). Due to this special relationship, schools must reasonably supervise students during the activities that are subject to the control of the school even if the activities are off of school property. Id. The extent of the duty a school owes to its students is defined by how much control the school has over the student’s conduct. This means that a duty is most likely to be found when students are on school property or involved in school-sponsored activities, but this is specific to the circumstances of each unique case.
Some noteworthy and relevant examples of circumstances in which Florida Courts have found a duty on the part of schools are:
After a graduate student at Nova Southeastern was robbed and sexually assaulted at an off-campus internship location, the Florida Supreme Court held that the university could be held liable because it assigned the student to a mandatory internship site which it knew was unreasonably dangerous, yet failed to give any warning or gave an inadequate warning to the student. Nova Se. Univ., Inc. v. Gross, 758 So. 2d 86 (Fla. 2000).
When a student was injured by hazing at off campus club meeting, the Florida Supreme Court held that student could bring an action because both the principal and the teacher advisor assumed control and supervision of all club activities. “Because the club was operated under the auspices of the school, it had assumed control and supervision of all club activities, an assumption upon which the participants had a right to rely. Rupp v. Sch. Bd .of Duval County, 417 So. 2d 658 (Fla. 1982).
A Florida appellate court held that a cause of action for negligence could be brought after a student at a junior high school was allegedly assaulted in a restroom by three other students. The alleged perpetrators had transferred from another school where they had committed similar assaults and had been roaming the halls at the school, which the court found was sufficient to alert the school board of the need to more clearly supervise and provide better security. King v. Dade County Bd. of Public Instruction, 286 So. 256 (Fla. 3d DCA 1973).
In student athletic endeavor, Florida courts have found that schools’ duty of supervision creates specific duties to the student athletes including: (1) to adequately instruct; (2) to provide proper equipment; (3) to reasonably match participants; (4) to adequately supervise athletic events; and (5) to take appropriate measures after a student is injured. Limones v. School Dist. of Lee County, 161 So. 3d 384, 390-91 (Fla. 2015) (citations omitted).
In potential litigation against a school or school board, educators will owe a duty of supervision and to act with reasonable care under the circumstances. Reasonable care is a standard that fluctuates with the specific circumstances of a case such as the age of the student, activity, location, nature and extent of the injury, and other situation-specific information such as what the school knew or should have known at the time. Ultimately, it is for a jury to decide whether a particular school or educational institution breached a duty, but the existence of a duty in circumstances where the school has control of the students is likely.
If confronted with cases stemming from the Stoneman Douglas shooting, we anticipate a Florida court to find that the school and school board had a duty to its student population to act reasonably under the circumstances. This could include a duty to affirmatively act if the school had credible information of a threat or potential threat to students. Whether the school should have more clearly supervised the situation, provided better security, or taken other action will be questions for a jury. Sadly, school shootings have become sufficiently common place that that they arguably are predictable, so we expect the victims and families of victims of school shootings to bring formal actions based on an alleged failure to act or insufficient action. Such actions may have merit depending on the facts uncovered in what will be a lengthy and thorough investigation.
Freidin Brown, P.A. is a proven personal injury law firm backed by more than a century of collective experience. Together, our Florida personal injury lawyers have handled over 300 jury trials, many in excess of $1 million. If you or someone you love was seriously injured at school or during a school-sponsored activity, do not hesitate to contact our legal team for help. We are available 24/7 to take your call, and our contingency fee policy means you’ll pay nothing upfront for the legal services we provide. Contact us today at 866-716-7292 for a free consultation.