Just yesterday, on February 10, 2022, it was reported that two high school students were injured when they were hit by a car in their school's parking lot at dismissal, leading to the hospitalization of the one of the students.
That raises the question:
What responsibility, if any, does a school have for what happens in its parking lot after school has let out for the day?
School Liability for its Parking Lots at Dismissal Under New York Law
Granted, this incident happened in Montclair, New Jersey, but the question remains, what would be the law if it happened at a New York school?
To that end, there are a few background, general rules to bear in mind before we can hone in on this particular issue:
(1) The standard of care required of the schools regarding its students.
“It is well established that a school is not the insurer of the safety of the students and it is only under a duty to exercise the degree of reasonable care that a parent of ordinary prudence would have exercised under comparable circumstances (see, Ohman v. Board of Educ., 300 N.Y. 306, 90 N.E.2d 474)” (Hauser v. North Rockland Cent. School Dist. No. 1, 166 A.D.2d 553, 554, 560 N.Y.S.2d 835; also, Ceglia v. Portledge School, 187 A.D.2d 550, 590 N.Y.S.2d 228; Gattyan v. Scarsdale Union Free School Dist. No. 1, 152 A.D.2d 650, 543 N.Y.S.2d 732).
(2) Ordinarily, schools are only liable for student safety while they remain under the school's custody and control.
Broadly speaking, New York law is abundantly clear that a school's liability does not - and cannot - extend beyond the school's borders. The rationale for this general principle should be fairly obvious and straightforward: any contrary rule would subject schools and their host municipalities to nearly limitless liability.
That said, and against that background, there are some limited - albeit crucial - exceptions to that general rule, which New York State's highest court articulated as follows:
“[W]hen the school releases a child without further supervision into a foreseeably hazardous setting it had a hand in creating.” Ernest v. Red Creek Cent. School Dist., 93 N.Y.2d 664, 717 N.E.2d 690, 695 N.Y.S.2d 531 (1999).
In truth, the facts in the Ernest case (where the school was ultimately held liable) were, in certain respects, less compelling from a school liability standpoint, because the accident in Ernest happened at a bus stop several blocks away from the school, unlike here, where it occurred in the school's parking lot, where the school theoretically was able to exert greater control. But the principal takeaway remains that the school may, in certain cases, retain responsibility to assure that they make a reasonably safe "hand-off" of the students at the end of the school day before they can say with confidence that they are absolved of further liability.