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Foreseeability defines a defendant’s duty of care

When a plaintiff’s harm falls in the general field of danger that a school district should reasonably have anticipated, the defendant has a duty to take steps to prevent that harm from occurring, the Court of Appeals held in Myers v. Ferndale School District, 457 P.3d 483 (2020).

In that case, a teacher took his physical education class for a walk off the school’s campus. It was a sunny afternoon, and the students were walking on the sidewalks. While the class was walking outside the school speed zone, a driver fell asleep at the wheel, lost control of his car, and drove into a group of students. Two students died; others were injured.

The estate of one student sued, asserting the school district was liable for negligently removing the student from the safety of the school campus. The school district argued it could not have foreseen the death of a student caused by a driver falling asleep at the wheel while the student was walking on a sidewalk beside a public road.

The school district moved for summary judgment, arguing that because the collision was not foreseeable, it had no duty to take steps to prevent the harm. The trial court agreed, focusing on the specifics of the collision. It ruled that the school district could not foresee that a driver would fall asleep during a bright, sunny school day and cause a tragic accident.

The Court of Appeals reversed, finding a genuine issue of material fact on the question of foreseeability. It ruled that the trial court focused too narrowly on the exact circumstances in its analysis of the school district’s duty. The question of foreseeability turns on the general field of danger created by removing a student from campus, not the particular harm that occurred.

The court started its analysis with the special duty of a school district. In general, persons and entities have a duty to use ordinary care to avoid harming another. But because of its custodial role, a school district must take precautions to protect students from dangers that are reasonably anticipated. That may include the duty to prevent harm by third parties. The school district had urged that this was not such a case because the specific details of the accident were not reasonably foreseeable. However, the court rejected this argument because the question of foreseeability is not about specifics. The question is whether removing a student from school grounds for a walk along a public roadway could result in the student being injured by an automobile.

The court quickly dismissed the school district’s argument that such harm was not foreseeable, pointing out that common knowledge dictates that car accidents – including some in which a car leaves the roadway and kills a pedestrian walking in apparent safety – happen. The trial court erred by ruling as a matter of law that this accident was so wholly beyond the realm of what can be anticipated that the school district had no duty to prevent it.

Similarly, the court rejected the argument that the estate could not prove legal causation. In this analysis, a court must consider whether, as a matter of policy, the connection between a defendant’s act and the harmful outcome is too attenuated to impose liability on the defendant. Duty and legal causation are related because for both, the court asks the question, “How far should the legal consequences of the negligence extend?” The court determined that the school district’s actions were not so remote as to relieve it of liability.

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