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Do schools owe a duty to protect students from 3rd parties? Achay v. Huntington Beach Unified High School District

July 8, 2022 Blog,California Laws

By Eric Ganci

The facts of this 6/28/22 California Court of Appeals decision Achay v. Huntington Beach Unified High School District (cited as 2022 WL 2339171) are sad: a high school student attends track practice after regular school hours. Around 5:30pm, Student leaves campus to walk to Starbucks and returns about 45 minutes later to grab her books from her school locker. A former student follows Student onto campus and stabs Student while on campus.

The legal holdings in Achay all deal with the Defendant School District’s Motion for Summary Judgment, where the Trial Court granted School’s MSJ, finding there was no issue 1) School had a duty here to protect Student and 2) there was no causation of the breach of duty to the injuries. The Court of Appeals overturned the Trial Court and held in favor of Student.

But again, this is just regarding the MSJ and not for ultimate liability: “We are certainly not finding that the District breached its duty (that is left to the trier of fact). Nor are we addressing other instances involving members of the public, with whom a school district generally has no special relationship, and therefore ordinarily owes no duty of care.”

Here’s a few legal understandings from this case:

The main holding: did Student’s walk to Starbucks release School from their duty?

No. “[W]e hold that [Student’s] brief sojourn to Starbucks did not somehow relieve the District of its legal duty of care.” Again, this is just for purposes of an MSJ and Student will still need to prove this duty through trial.

In general: Schools owe a duty to protect their students:

To start, generally one does NOT owe a duty of care to another: “As a general rule, one owes no duty to control the conduct of another, nor to warn those endangered by such conduct.”

However, if there is a special relationship, then a duty can arise: “Such a duty may arise, however, if ‘(a) a special relation exists between the actor and the third person which imposes a duty upon the actor to control the third person’s conduct, or (b) a special relation exists between the actor and the other which gives the other a right to protection.’”

Schools DO owe this duty to protect their students: “A special relationship is formed between a school district and its students resulting in the imposition of an affirmative duty on the school district to take all reasonable steps to protect its students.” “Schools have a ‘general duty to supervise the conduct of children on school grounds during school sessions, school activities, recesses, and lunch periods.’”

If Schools violate that duty, the School/District can be liable: ““Ample case authority establishes that school personnel owe students under their supervision a protective duty of ordinary care, for breach of which the school district may be held vicariously liable.”

This duty is one of “ordinary prudence”:

“While ‘neither school districts nor their employees are the insurers of the safety of their students,’ school districts ‘do owe [students] a duty to use the degree of care which a person of ordinary prudence, charged with comparable duties, would exercise in the same circumstances.’”

“A school district’s responsibility ‘includes the duty to use reasonable measures to protect students from foreseeable injury at the hands of third parties acting negligently or intentionally.’”

Foreseeable…that’s a legal word with legal meaning:

“Foreseeability is determined in light of all the circumstances and does not require prior identical events or injuries.” “It is not necessary to prove that the very injury which occurred must have been foreseeable by the school authorities …. Their negligence is established if a reasonably prudent person would foresee that injuries of the same general type would be likely to happen in the absence of [adequate] safeguards. Additionally, ‘the issue of “foreseeability does not depend upon the foreseeability of a particular third party’s act, but instead focuses on whether the allegedly negligent conduct at issue created a foreseeable risk of a particular kind of harm.’”