School District Liability for Student Injuries – Cases Involving After School Programs and Field Trips Yield Different Results

General Rule

The law regarding the duty of supervision on school campuses is very well established. School officials are obligated to supervise the conduct of children on the school grounds and to enforce rules and regulations necessary for their protection. A school district is liable for injuries that result from a failure of its officers and employees to use ordinary care in this respect. What, exactly, constitutes ordinary care depends on the circumstances of each particular case. (See generally, Bellman v. San Francisco High School District, 11 Cal.2d 576, 582 (1938).)

This doctrine even applies to a truant who leaves school early if it can be demonstrated that that the injuries were proximately caused by the school’s negligent supervision, although liability may be diminished based on a student’s comparative negligence. (Hoyem v. Manhattan Beach City School District, 22 Cal.3d 508, 512 & fn. 4 (1978).)

While it is firmly established that school districts have a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect students while they are on campus – a rule that seems obvious – tricky questions arise when an injury occurs after school hours or off campus. Recently, appellate courts confronted such cases and reached different conclusions regarding liability.

After School Programs

In the “off hours” context, the question usually is whether the student’s presence on campus is invited, encouraged, or part of a district-supervised program. Liability under such circumstances is imposed due to the special relationship that exists between the school and the student. “Although a school district is not an insurer of its pupils’ safety . . . our cases have long established that a school district bears a legal duty to exercise reasonable care in supervising students in its charge and may be held liable for injuries caused by the failure to exercise such care.” (Hoyem, 22 Cal.3d at 513.)

As another court has observed: “A special relationship is formed between a school district and its students resulting in the imposition of an affirmative duty on the school district to take all reasonable steps to protect its students and this affirmative duty rests, in part, on the compulsory nature of education.” (M.W. v. Panama Buena Vista Union School District, 110 Cal.App.4th 508, 517 (2003).)

Even if a student attends a voluntary program, such as summer school or an after-school activity, liability still may apply if the school district encouraged the activity.  In Agbeti v. Los Angeles Unified School District, a student was injured while participating in a voluntary (and free) after school program. The court held that even though the program was voluntary and free, the school still had a duty of reasonable care. And even if a student’s immature conduct was partially a cause of injury, that fact alone does not bar the claim; indeed, the immaturity of students is yet another reason for a school district to be vigilant and to charge the district with a duty of reasonable care. The issue for the jury will always be: what is reasonable under the circumstances of a given case?

Field Trips - Immunity

A different rule applies if a student is injured off campus while on a field trip. A special statute – Education Code section 35330 – provides immunity to school districts that sponsor off-campus field trips. Section 35330 (d) states that “all persons making the field trip or excursion shall be deemed to have waived all claims against the district, a charter school, or the State of California for injury, accident, illness, or death occurring during or by reason of the field trip or excursion.” Appellate courts have observed that this statute creates a “broad immunity.” (Wolfe v. Dublin Unified School District, 56 Cal.App.4th 126, 130 (1996).)

To claim immunity, a defendant must show (1) that it is a “school district” and (2) that it conducted the field trip. One of the primary reasons for immunity in this context is to encourage school districts to sponsor field trips and keep the costs of such trips at an affordable level. (See Casterson v. Superior Court, 101 Cal.App.4th 177, 188-190 (2002).)

These principles were tested (and expanded somewhat) in Sanchez v. San Diego County Office of Education. In that case, an interesting fact pattern existed. The injured student (a sixth grader) was enrolled in the McCabe Union School District. She went on a five-day field trip to Camp Fox, a facility operated by the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE). While at camp, the student suffered an asthma coronary attack and died. The question for the court was whether a claim could be made against the SDCOE, which was not the sponsoring school district and not the district the student was enrolled in.

The court of appeal ruled that because the SDCOE was a significant participant in the field trip, it was entitled to immunity under section 35330. In the court’s eyes, the use of the SDCOE’s facilities to stage the field trip, and the use of SDCOE’s staff at those facilities, made the SCDOE the equivalent of a school district that “conducted” the field trip. “Our interpretation of section 35330 – that it is not limited to the student’s home district but includes any school district that is a significant participant in conducting the field trip – accords with the policy underlying section 35330.”

Copies of both the and Agbeti and Sanchez cases are attached for your convenience.

Our firm regularly advises school administrators, school districts, private schools and parents on a variety of legal issues and if you have questions about these rulings, or any other aspect of public or private school administration, please feel free to consult our office.