In the context of school negligence cases - like any other kind of negligence cases - as part of its case, the plaintiff is required to show that the defendant either caused, or failed to undertake reasonable measures to prevent the incident from occurring - and that had the defendant undertaken such measures, the incident likely would not have occurred. Therefore, a threshold question that plaintiffs often face is trying to establish that the defendant's acts or omissions (i.e., failure to act) was unreasonable.

You might think that in cases where the plaintiff can demonstrate that the defendant failed to follow their own guidelines, establishing their negligence would be a slam dunk, right?

But (in most cases) you would be wrong.

Why a Defendant's Violation of its Own Rules Doesn't Necessarily Equal Negligence

Here is where New York's courts have laid down a critical rule, stating as follows:

"We reject plaintiffs’ argument that defendant’s company manual created a separate duty of care. Violation of a company’s internal rules is not negligence in and of itself, and where such rules require a standard that transcends reasonable care, breach cannot be considered evidence of negligence (Longacre v. Yonkers R.R. Co., 236 N.Y. 119, 125, 140 N.E. 215." Sherman by Sherman v. Robinson by Robinson, 80 N.Y.2d 483 (1992) [Emphasis supplied].

That does not inherently mean that there is a blanket rule that the defendant's internally adopted rules have no value to establishing defendant's negligence; there are some circumstances where those rules are highly relevant, as one of New York's appellate courts clarified:

"While internal operating rules may provide some evidence of whether reasonable care has been taken and thus some evidence of the defendant's negligence or absence thereof, such rules must be excluded, as a matter of law, if they require a standard of care which transcends the area of reasonable care. Danbois v. New York Central Railroad Company, 12 N.Y.2d 234, 238, 239, 238 N.Y.S.2d 921, 189 N.E.2d 468 (1963)."

Lesser v. Manhattan & Bronx Surface Transit Operating Auth., 157 A.D.2d 352, 463, 556 N.Y.S.2d 274, 276 (1990), amended, 176 A.D.2d 463 (N.Y. App. Div. 1991), and aff'd sub nom. Fishman v. Manhattan & Bronx Surface Transit Operating Auth., 79 N.Y.2d 1031, 594 N.E.2d 933 (1992).

The Rationale for the Rule

The rationale for this rule is solidly grounded in public policy: the courts want to encourage schools and property owners to enact strict standards to protect and promote safety - even those that transcend garden-variety "reasonableness." Consequently, if parties were held liable for failing to follow their own, voluntarily-adopted stricter standards, those parties would immediately cease enacting such safety measures - an outcome that directly contravenes the goal of enhanced public safety. 

Jonathan Cooper
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Non-Compete, Trade Secret and School Negligence Lawyer
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