On April 12, New York's Appellate Division, Second Department affirmed a Nassau County trial court's decision that held a public school negligent as a matter of law. At first blush, you might think that this is a crucial, ground-breaking decision - particularly given that the court seemed to be announcing a principle of the standard governing a school's duty to supervise its students under New York law. (For more on the general rule articulated by this decision, see "The Duty of a NY School to Supervise Its After School Programs").
But you'd be terribly mistaken.
Closer analysis reveals that this decision is very fact-specific; indeed, even a casual reading of the language of the court's decision confirms that the court held as it did because the teacher's negligence in failing to supervise her students in this case was particularly egregious.
In Nash v. Port Wash. Union Free School Dist., a teenage student sustained severe burns and personal injuries when another student triggered an explosion in his high school's science laboratory in the middle of an after school program at the school. This was an honors class with only 9 students; the science lab was equipped with lab tables,incubators, flow hoods, Bunsen burners and other equipment for scientific study and research. As part of their work involving cell culturing, the students were using ethyl alcohol. Another student, who was just "keeping the others company," was toying with a spark lighter that was on a nearby table, striking it several times (this student had a prior diagnosis of attention hyperactivity attention disorder (ADHD).
An explosion followed.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this case is that the school was forced to concede that the science teacher who had been assigned to supervise this class left the school premises in the middle of the class, leaving the students completely unsupervised. (This was against the school's own published rules, but, not surprisingly, the teacher contended at her deposition that this rule, albeit "on the books," was not generally followed).
The battle lines for this case were drawn as follows: the school contended that the case against it, which was grounded in negligent supervision, should be dismissed as a matter of law because the incident occurred at an after school program, and the school acted as a reasonably prudent person under the circumstances. The plaintiff, on the other hand, argued that the school should be awarded summary judgment because the school failed to act as a reasonably prudent parent.
In siding with the parents of the child, the appellate court stated as follows:
"We disagree with the school district's conclusion that these Facts rendered the program an extracurricular activity to which the less rigorous "reasonably prudent person" standard applied. The SRP was an academic class, for which the participants would receive a grade. It was not in any sense an "intramural or extracurricular school sport," which is the context in which the lower standard has generally been found to apply ...
"Additionally, while the accident occurred following the end of formal classes for the day, the SRP was allotted a time period and was contained in the third-party defendant's class schedule like any other class. Thus, under the particular circumstances presented here, the mere fact that the accident occurred following the formal end of classes for the day is without legal significance.
"With regard to the issue of whether the school district breached the applicable duty of care, the evidence establishes that Serfaty, and, by extension, the school district, exercised no supervision whatsoever over the plaintiff and the third-party defendant at the relevant time. While the third-party defendant was working on his project and the plaintiff was nearby, Serfaty left the premises, leaving the two students unattended in the lab. Thus, upon her departure, and at the time of the accident, the students were completely unsupervised. Accordingly, the conclusion is inescapable that the school district, by Serfaty, breached its duty.
"Moreover, ... Serfaty at the very least knew that there was ethyl alcohol present in the lab ... that she was aware of the presence of spark lighters in the lab, and that one may have been "laying around." Based on the facts known to Serfaty at the time, she was on notice of the dangerous conduct which would ultimately cause the plaintiff's injury."