school negligence book As we wrote yesterday in New York Redefines Special Duty for Municipalities, the Court of Appeals' Ferreira decision seemingly promises to have a wide, sweeping impact in curtailing municipal liability for negligence. And while the underlying legal and public policy reasons for this are rather complicated (and perhaps more than a bit contradictory), at the end of the day, a majority of the court, citing its earlier decision in the Applewhite case, held that "[W]henever 'an individual seeks recovery out of the public purse' for acts taken in a governmental capacity (Lauer, 95 NY2d at 100), '[i]t is the plaintiff's obligation to prove that the government defendant owed a special duty of care to the injured party because duty is an essential element of the negligence claim itself" (Applewhite, 21 NY3d at 426).

Among many other questions, that raises an important question insofar as school liability is concerned: 

How - if at all - will that affect school negligence cases under NY law?

Will Ferreira v. City of Binghamton Spell the End of School Negligence Cases?

The short answer - in my opinion - is no. 

Here's why:

New York's courts have long and explicitly articulated that the schools inherently have a special duty vis-a-vis their students as follows:

"Under the doctrine that a school district acts in loco parentis with respect to its minor students, a school district owes a “special duty” to the students themselves (Pratt v. Robinson, 39 N.Y.2d 554, 560, 384 N.Y.S.2d 749, 349 N.E.2d 849; see Mirand v. City of New York, 84 N.Y.2d 44, 49, 614 N.Y.S.2d 372, 637 N.E.2d 263; Stinson v. Roosevelt U.F.S.D., 61 A.D.3d at 847–848, 877 N.Y.S.2d 400; cf. Williams v. Weatherstone, 23 N.Y.3d 384, 403–404, 991 N.Y.S.2d 779, 15 N.E.3d 792, 2014 N.Y. Slip Op. 03425, *13 [2014] ).

"Accordingly, a school district may be held liable to a student when it breaches that duty, so long as all other necessary elements of a negligence cause of action are established (see Braunstein v. Half Hollow Hills Cent. Sch. Dist., 104 A.D.3d 893, 894, 962 N.Y.S.2d 340)"

(Emphasis supplied).

Ferguson v. City of New York, 118 A.D.3d 849, 850, 988 N.Y.S.2d 207, 208 (2014).

Thus, as a practical matter, it seems clear that students should be able to establish that the schools have a special duty to them, and thereby clear this particular legal hurdle as part of their negligence claim.

A Word of Caution

But that is only with respect to the students; adults, including faculty and other support staff may have a much harder time establishing the school owed them a special duty, as the courts have further stated as follows:

"The special duty owed to the students themselves does not, however, extend, as a general matter, to teachers, administrators, and other adults on or off of school premises (see Stinson v. Roosevelt U.F.S.D., 61 A.D.3d at 847–848, 877 N.Y.S.2d 400; Goga v. Binghamton City School Dist., 302 A.D.2d at 650–651, 754 N.Y.S.2d 739; Sampson v. Board of Educ. Of City of N.Y., 255 A.D.2d 434, 435, 680 N.Y.S.2d 594; cf. Kochanski v. City of New York, 76 A.D.3d 1050, 908 N.Y.S.2d 260).

Ferguson v. City of New York, supra.

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