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School district denied summary judgment on causation

Disputed issues about whether a school district could have foreseen harm to a student taking part in an off-campus activity, and whether it could have prevented the harm, precluded summary judgment, the Washington Supreme Court held in Meyers v. Ferndale School District, No. 98280-5 (2021).

In Meyers, a physical education teacher took his high school class on a walk off campus. The day was sunny and clear. The students walked on a regular sidewalk. The drivable roadway was separated from the sidewalk by a shoulder eight feet wide. The speed limit, once outside the school speed zone, was 40 m.p.h.

The teacher had his principal’s permission to take such walks as part of the regular curriculum. The class had taken the same route approximately 30 times before. The school did not consider these walks as field trips, so it did not seek and obtain parental permission as provided in the school’s field trip policy.

While the students were walking with their backs to traffic, an auto left the roadway. About one second later, the car struck multiple members of the class on the sidewalk. Two students were seriously injured, and two were killed. Although it was broad daylight, the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel.

The estate of one of the deceased students sued the school district, alleging that it could have prevented the accident. The estate argued the school district was negligent to allow the walks without following the field trip policy, and that the deceased’s parents would not have given him permission to leave campus had the policy been followed. The estate also alleged the teacher failed to take certain precautions, such as walking opposite the flow of oncoming traffic, crossing at crosswalks only, and keeping the students close together, rather than allowing the group to spread out as much as 200 yards.

The school district moved for summary judgment, arguing that the accident was unforeseeable as a matter of law. The trial court agreed, determining the school district had no duty to protect against this type of danger. The Court of Appeals reversed in a published opinion, Meyers v. Ferndale School District, 12 Wn. App. 2d 254, 457 P.3d 483 (2020) (summarized in our Spring 2020 issue). It found an issue of fact on foreseeability which precluded summary judgment.

The school district petitioned the Washington Supreme Court, which accepted review. The Court affirmed, agreeing that issues of fact preclude summary judgment on proximate cause. A school district has a duty, because of the custodial and involuntary nature of its relationship with students, to protect students from foreseeable harm, even that caused by third parties. The parties disputed whether this student’s death was within a general field of danger which the school district should have anticipated, and whether the district’s actions and omissions were the proximate cause of the harm.

Because the issue was decided on summary judgment, the evidence had to be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Plaintiff’s evidence tended to show that he would not have even been off campus, had the school district followed the field trip policy, and that he might have avoided being hit if he were walking opposite oncoming traffic and could see the car. Cause in fact could not, therefore, be decided on summary judgment.

Nor could legal cause, the inquiry into how far the consequences of defendant’s conduct should extend, be decided as a matter of law. The Supreme Court criticized the lower court’s apparent conflation of the elements of duty and legal causation. Although similar considerations come into play, the analyses are distinct. The Court pointed to the undecided factual questions about foreseeability and the district’s conduct precluded summary judgment.

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