District Did Not Owe Duty To Ensure Students Were Safe Against Unforeseeable Acts Of Third Party

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters, Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education, Public Education
DATE: Oct 03, 2022

On April 10, 2017, Cedric Anderson entered his wife’s classroom at an elementary school in the San Bernardino City Unified School District. Anderson shot and killed his wife, a student, and himself in front of a class of students. Students who witnessed the shooting, through their guardians, sued the District for negligence and dangerous conditions of the property.

The students argued that the District had a duty to take reasonable steps to protect them from criminal activity, and the District created a dangerous condition by failing to lock the front office door and equip classrooms with doors that were locked. Rather, a curtain covered the entrance to their classroom. The District argued that they owed no duty to the students because Anderson’s actions were not foreseeable, the school property was not in a dangerous condition because there was no defect, and Anderson was not using the school property with due care. Anderson had previously visited the school and never posed a threat or caused any problems, and his wife never informed anyone at the District of their marital issues. When Anderson arrived at the school’s front office, he said he was dropping something off for his wife. The trial court agreed with the District, and the students appealed.

On appeal, the Court of Appeal concluded that even though the District had a special relationship with the students, which gave rise to a duty to protect them, the District was not liable to the students in this case. In reaching its decision, the court analyzed foreseeability-related factors, including 1) the foreseeability of harm to the plaintiff; 2) the degree of certainty that the plaintiff suffered an injury, and 3) the closeness of the connection between the conduct and the injury suffered. While the court acknowledged that this was a tragic event, it concluded that “imposing a duty on a school district to ensure that its school is safe from every trusted visitor would be entirely unfounded and unfair.” The court found the District had no actual knowledge that Anderson posed a risk of harm to his wife or anyone at the school. On the contrary, Anderson had previously visited the school without incident, and his wife never expressed any concern to family or the District about his potential for violence or her safety.

The court also noted that public policy favors imposing a duty on school districts to ensure that students are safe from the third-party criminal conduct of known visitors – such as teachers’ spouses and family members. The court noted that “the extent of the burden to shoulder such a duty and the consequences to school personnel would be extremely heavy. Districts would become the insurers of the safety of students in the event of any intentional harm (including from within), even if the districts have no reason to expect it. This is an unrealistic responsibility.”

C.I. v. San Bernardino City Unified School District (2022) S.O.S. 4260.

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