Rhode Island high school not liable for after-school ‘horseplay’ injuries

By Tim Groves

The Rhode Island Supreme Court recently upheld summary judgment in favor of a high school on a plaintiff’s complaint for damages that a student allegedly sustained as a result of “horseplay” with his classmates in an unsupervised area of the school following an after-school sports workout.

The school is not liable because the student’s injuries were not “reasonably foreseeable” under the circumstances, according to the court, which noted that schools are not legally obliged to monitor all activities of students.

The student, a member of the Bishop Hendricken High School hockey team, had remained after school for a workout in the school’s weight room in January 2006. Following his workout, he initiated the horseplay by taking a friend’s book bag and running to the bathroom. His friend and other students gave chase.

The student entered a stall and pretended to flush the book bag down the toilet. A classmate kicked the stall door, which hit the student in the head. The classmate then pushed the student, causing him to stumble toward a window. After instinctively putting up his hands, he lacerated his wrist when the glass shattered.

The boy’s mother sued the school, alleging that it negligently supervised the students by not discouraging or detecting the bathroom horseplay. She also contended that the school was negligent in not installing shatter-proof safety glass.

The Supreme Court, however, rejected these claims.

“Absent a specific act or omission, we are reluctant to impose upon schools a standard that would require them to post monitors at each bathroom during after-school hours,” wrote Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell for the court.

Schools are not insurers of the safety of their students, the court emphasized, and are not liable for every thoughtless or careless act of pupils.

In reaching its decision, the court noted that the students involved had no record of similar behavior, the incident was spontaneous, and there was no history of “horseplay” in and around the bathroom where it occurred. Accordingly, the school could not have reasonably foreseen that the incident would have taken place.

As for the shattered glass, the school did not have a legal duty to install safety glass in the bathroom window, the court held, because the hazard of a student injuring himself from a broken window in the bathroom was not foreseeable. As a point of contrast, the court noted a ruling from the Massachusetts Appeals Court that the failure to install safety glass in a heavily used door could be the basis of liability even if the safety glass was not required by building codes.

Important lessons

In light of the ruling, Rhode Island school administrators should keep in mind the following:

  • A legal duty to supervise after-school activities is not all-encompassing, but does extend to circumstances where it is foreseeable that students may be injured, or that students might harm other students;
  • A duty to monitor areas of a school campus arises when a school is on notice that a specific area is dangerous, or knows or should know that certain students would or may conduct themselves in a way that poses a danger to others, or if a particular area or classroom has a history of disciplinary problems;
  • Constant supervision of all students at all times is not required under the law;
  • Compliance with building codes regarding glass windows and doors is not in and of itself a defense to a negligence lawsuit;
  • Liability may arise if a student is injured by shattered glass in an area where the likelihood of injury is foreseeable – such as glass in a door in a high-traffic area.

The case is Daniels v. Fluette, et al. (No. 2012-53).

Tim is an associate at Barton Gilman where he focuses on school law and civil litigation.