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Legal Matters with Chris Richard – Liability of Being Back in School

As the end of summer draws near, parents begin thinking of back to school. Back to school shopping and lunch planning begin to occupy parents’ thoughts, and schools make efforts to receive students safely.

Chris Richard, Managing Partner of Graves and Richard, sat down with host Lee Sterry of Niagara’s 610 Newstalk Radio and discussed the topic of School Board liability for injuries sustained on school premises. Chris stated that his well-known law firm receives numerous inquiries every year from people involved in situations where students have been injured either at school or during a school event. Chris discussed the unique issues that arise surrounding injuries at school.

Duty of School Boards to ensure school properties are reasonably safe

When it comes to the safety of school premises, the School Board is under the same obligation as any other property owner in Ontario, which is to keep the premises in the condition as is reasonably necessary to keep everyone entering onto the property reasonably safe.

This duty on the School Board to inspect and maintain school premises to ensure the property is reasonably safe is relatively robust. Due to the large number of people in and out of school buildings and the fact that attendance is mandatory, the burden on School Boards is high.

While the duty is onerous, it is also relatively vague to give the courts wide discretion to look at the unique facts of each case and ask, “What happened in this case? Were the actions or inactions taken by the School Board reasonable?”

Examples of actions school boards are expected to take to meet their duty to keep premises reasonably safe

School Boards are expected to remove ice and snow from areas that people commonly walk in a timely manner. This duty requires not only timely inspection and maintenance, but also that safe walking conditions remain all day. Chris shared that he recently settled a claim where his client, who was a parent or caregiver, slipped and fell on a walkway at the child’s school. In the morning when the client dropped the child off, the walkway had been nicely cleared by the school. But by the end of the day, the walkway had become completely covered again due to foot traffic, and the woman slipped and fell on ice on the walkway. Chris was successful in negotiating a settlement for her because the School Board breached their duty to ensure that the safe condition of the walkway remained safe all day.

School Boards also have a duty to ensure that outdoor walkways are maintained, repaired and remain free from significant trip hazards. Examples include pot holes in parking lots and heaving in sidewalks.

School Boards are expected to ensure that hallways and classrooms are monitored for spills in an effort to avoid slips and falls. Ensuring that fixtures, such as lights, are maintained and repaired in an effort to avoid injury from falling objects is an important component of this duty. Chris gave as an example a case he settled involving a light fixture falling from the ceiling and landing on the head of a person sitting in class. In this case, the School Board had a proactive duty to inspect and maintain the premises to protect against this type of incident from happening.

Duty of School Boards to supervise

School Boards have a legal duty to supervise. The legal standard on a School Board to supervise students under its charge is to the standard of the prudent parent. This standard is not one of a perfect parent, nor is it one of an inattentive parent. But rather, the standard is one of a prudent parent.

Whether or not a School Board has met this standard is fact specific. Courts will look at a situation and say “What level of supervision was provided here, and what would a prudent parent have done in this situation?”. This standard also allows for adjustment appropriate to the age of the child. The prudent parent would not apply the same level of supervision to a 16 year old as they would to a four year old.

Situations in which the duty to supervise may apply

Playground fights are not just interactions between children while the teachers and playground supervisors turn their heads. The School Board has an obligation to supervise in this situation. The question a judge would ask is, “If the children were properly supervised, would the fight on the playground have occurred, or did the fight occur by a lack of supervision”?

As a general rule in a sporting activity, if an injury occurred that is completely within the normal context of the game, it probably is not a compensable injury. For example, if a student jumps and makes a shot in basketball and comes down and rolls his or her ankle, there probably is not a viable claim. However, if a student is instructed to use fitness or phys-ed equipment, and they are not provided with any instructions on its proper use, and an injury occurs, liability may arise. The surrounding circumstances would need to be looked at to see if there was something that could have been done to avoid the injury. Chris shared an example a of case involving impromptu wrestling matches on high jump mats for high-school aged kids that resulted in injury, and the question arose as to whether the level of supervision provided to those kids was reasonable.

With respect to playground equipment, there are standards for safety for the play-structures themselves, and there are also standards for the stone pebbles surrounding the play-structures. The stone pebble are required to be turned and kept loose to ensure students a soft place to land as opposed to becoming unyielding and cement-like.

Any time a person is injured on school premises, it is appropriate to make inquiries into and to investigate the level of supervision that was present and/or the efforts made to inspect and maintain the premises. If an injury has occurred, and the level of supervision seems inconsistent with the supervision you would have provided to a child at home under your care, or if the efforts to inspect and maintain the premises seemed inadequate, as the case may be, the School Board may be liable for breaching its duty.