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Court Finds Private School Owed Parent A Duty To Exercise Reasonable Care To Prevent Injury On School Premises, But Declines To Find School Liable For Parent’s Injuries
Maritza Torres arrived at Our Lady of Guadalupe Academy (OLGA) 30 minutes before classes were dismissed to make a tuition payment and wait for her daughter to be released from class. After making the payment, Torres walked down the hallway towards a bench near the administrative offices. While walking, a first-grade student pulling a rolling backpack ran in front of Torres. Torres caught her foot on the backpack and tripped forward, landing on her right arm and sustaining a fracture and dislocation injury. There were no staff members in the hallway at the time, but another parent witnessed the backpack strike Torres’s foot and cause her to fall. Torres filed an action against OLGA for premises liability and negligence based on failure to supervise.
To prove her negligence and premises liability claims, Torres had to plead (1) OLGA owed her a duty of care; (2) breach of that duty; and (3) the breach as the proximate or legal cause of her injury. To show OLGA owed her a duty of care, Torres had to demonstrate that she and OLGA shared a special relationship. Generally, special relationships may exist between common carriers and their passengers, innkeepers and their guests, businesses or landowners and their invited guests, and a school with its students. Torres first argued that the special relationship between a school and its students supports a duty to nonstudents who are on the school’s premises. The court disagreed and held that the special relationship between a school and its students “does not impose a duty on OLGA to monitor and control its students for the benefit and protection of a nonstudent like Torres.”
Second, Torres argued that a special relationship existed between her and OLGA due to the common law duty that parents owe third parties to supervise and control the conduct of their children. However, the court found that even if the “same parental duties and standards could be extended to OLGA,” that duty is only triggered by knowledge of specific dangerous tendencies in the child and there was no evidence that the child in the case had any dangerous tendencies.
Third, Torres argued that a special relationship existed between OLGA and “tuition-paying parents,” who pay money in exchange for OLGA’s provision of parochial education. The court agreed that “[t]he relationship between a possessor of land and an invitee is a special relationship giving rise to a duty of care.” Having agreed that OLGA owed Torres a duty of care as an invitee onto the school premises to exercise reasonable care to prevent her from being injured on the premises, the court then analyzed whether Torres had shown that OLGA breached that duty.
Torres first contended that OLGA breached the duty by releasing a student early, failing to warn her that a child would be released early, and failing to warn her to be on the lookout for students in the hallway. However, the court found that it would have been unreasonable for OLGA to refrain from releasing children early to their parents and unreasonable to require OLGA to tell visitors that children might be running in the hallway.
Torres next contended that OLGA breached the duty by failing to properly supervise the student who was released early. However, the court found that OLGA had policies in place to prevent students from running in the hallways and regularly reminded students of those policies. Further, the court noted that OLGA did not have a duty to provide one-on-one supervision of students at all times.
Finally, the court concluded that Torres was unable to demonstrate causation, i.e., that OLGA’s closer supervision of the child would have prevented the student from tripping Torres and causing her injuries. Torres could not recall where she was looking immediately prior to the time she tripped, and the accident occurred so quickly that Torres did not even see the boy beforehand. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment in favor of OLGA.
Torres v. Pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Parish Calexico (Cal. Ct. App., Dec. 13, 2019, No. D074233) 2019 WL 6799758 (unpublished).
While this unpublished case is not binding, it does provide a helpful reminder that schools owe a duty of care to parents or other individuals that are on the school campus to protect them from foreseeable harm.