The Road to Recovery: Court Expands Possibility of School Liability for Student Crashes

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Adam C. Wattenbarger
Education Law Attorney
Kennedy & Graven, Chartered

This past November, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals and held that, if the injury is foreseeable, schools may face liability for harm caused to members of the general public by students who are driving to school-related events.

The case—Fenrich v. The Blake School—arose from a trip to an out-of-state cross country meet. The meet was an independent function, not sponsored by the school or the state high school league. Nevertheless, the school’s cross-country coaches encouraged team members to participate in the meet; the meet was listed on the team’s official schedule; an assistant coach paid the bulk participation fee; and the coaches helped coordinate lodging and transportation arrangements.

The mother of one 16-year-old student emailed the team coaches and granted permission for her son to drive himself and passengers to the meet, provided that he was part of a caravan with a coach’s vehicle. The coaches agreed, and the student drove with two student passengers as well as a young volunteer coach. At some point during the 200-mile trip, the student, potentially distracted by his phone, swerved over the centerline of the highway and collided with another vehicle, killing the other vehicle’s driver and severely injuring its passenger.

The injured party sued the school for negligence. Negligence claims require the existence of a “duty of care,” and normally a school does not owe a duty to the general public if the harm is caused by a third party’s conduct. But there are two exceptions to that rule: “(1) if there is a special relationship between the plaintiff and the school and the harm to the plaintiff is foreseeable; or (2) if the school’s own conduct creates a foreseeable risk of injury to a foreseeable plaintiff.” The Court quickly rejected the first exception, holding that the school did not have a “special relationship” to the injured parties.

As for the second exception, the Court analyzed the school’s conduct and held that it had assumed active supervision and control over the team’s trip. The remaining question, therefore, was whether the school’s conduct created a foreseeable risk of injury to a foreseeable plaintiff.

The Court held that the foreseeability question was a “close call.” On one hand, the student’s parents consented, the student was licensed and had no known history of improper driving, the student was part of a caravan with an assistant coach, and the accident occurred during the day. On the other hand, the student was young, had been licensed less than 6 months, was driving a lengthy distance with only teenagers in the car, and in fact could not legally drive multiple passengers under the age of 20. Other than “keep it safe,” there were no specific instructions provided to the student, or the volunteer coach in the car, regarding safety and avoiding distractions.

Because it was a close call, the Court held that dismissal at the summary judgment stage was not appropriate, and that a jury should be allowed to decide whether the risk of injury to the plaintiffs was sufficiently foreseeable to create a duty on behalf of the school. The decision did not conclude that the school will necessarily be found to have had such a duty under the facts of this case, but it does arguably expand the possibility that schools could face liability when students are allowed to drive to events. The following are some key takeaways:

  • It has long been established that schools risk some liability when students drive in connection with school activities, but this decision makes clear that the universe of potential plaintiffs includes members of the public. As the dissenting opinion cautioned, “Minnesota schools, both private and public, now risk liability to members of the general public whenever students drive themselves to or from a school activity, even when the school has no notice of any history of negligent or reckless driving.”
  • The fact that an event is not officially “school-sponsored” will not necessarily get a school off the hook. If a school team promotes an event, encourages participation, and coordinates transportation to an event, it is likely a court will find that the school effectively assumed supervision and control over the trip.
  • If a school allows students to drive themselves to a school-sponsored event, whether there is a “foreseeable risk of injury” for purposes of establishing a duty in a negligence claim is a fact-based, case-by-case analysis. The more safety-positive factors are present, the more likely a court will find that there was not a foreseeable risk of harm (e.g., parental consent, student driving history, time of day, length of trip, number and age of passengers in the car, etc.).

This article is intended to provide general information with commentary. It should not be relied on as legal advice. If required, legal advice regarding this topic should be obtained from district legal counsel.

Adam Wattenbarger is an education law attorney with the law firm of Kennedy & Graven, Chartered. For more information, please contact him at (612) 337-9306 or www.kennedy-graven.com.

© Adam C. Wattenbarger (2019). Used by permission.

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