Reversing earlier decisions by lower courts, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled a school district had no duty of care to a 12-year-old special needs middle school student who was struck by a car before an approaching school bus stopped to pick her up.
The finding in Williams v. Weatherstone strikes down the idea that schools owe a duty to students while they wait independently at their bus stops. The court refused to find that this was among those limited circumstances in which a school without actual physical custody of a child might be held liable for injuries sustained.
Manhattan pedestrian accident lawyers know that there have been previous instances where the court has held the district liable, even when the child wasn’t physically at school or on a school bus.
One of those was Ernest v Red Cr. Cent. School Dist., decided in 1999, and the another Pratt v. Indian River School District, decided in 2010.
In the Pratt case, a 7-year-old child, having gotten off the bus at a regular stop closest to her home was struck by a truck and severely injured while crossing a heavily-trafficked street three blocks away from home. The school established the bus route. It was argued – and the appellate court agreed – that while the bus stop location itself was in a safe location, the district was nonetheless negligent because the stop was planned in such a way that the child would have to cross a dangerous intersection to get home.
In the Ernest case, a second-grader was struck and severely injured by a truck while crossing the road on which his school was located. There were no sidewalks, no traffic signals and no crosswalks to assist students who needed to cross to get to school. The school knew this was a danger, and therefore didn’t permit students who walked home to leave until all the buses had departed. The truck driver in this case said he didn’t see the student because his view was obstructed by a departing bus. The crash happened less than 200 feet from the property line of the school. Although it was noted that schools don’t have a duty of care to a child once the child is released in a safe and anticipated manner, schools do breach the duty of care when they release children into a foreseeably hazardous setting – particularly one in which it had a hand in creating.
This brings us back to the Williams case. The bus driver, traveling a new route, initially forgot to pick up a 12-year-old special needs student. Both the driver and a monitor on the bus spotted the girl waiting at the stop, but neither waved or signaled as they passed. The bus driver realized the error, and turned around to pick her up.
Shortly after turning, the driver said he noticed out of the corner of his eye debris flying into the air. He slowed down and saw that the girl had been struck by a car. She was seriously injured.
Police reported the accident was primarily due to pedestrian error, though the driver had failed to adequately clear the frost from her windshield.
While the girl’s testimony about what happened was inconsistent, she did consistently say that the bus had forgotten her and then stopped, so she looked both ways and ran across the street – presumably in an attempt to catch up to the bus.
The girl’s mother filed suit against both the driver and school district.
The school argued that a summary judgment should be granted because it owed no duty of care to a student not in its custody. The plaintiff responded by citing the two earlier cases.
Initially, the lower courts had backed the mother. However, the Court of Appeals reversed (with one justice dissenting). The majority noted that in the previous two cases, even though the students hadn’t technically been in the custody of the school, the school had still exercised control over the time, place and conditions of the child’s release from the school back to the parents. In this case, the court ruled, the child hadn’t yet left the physical custody of her mother. Her mother trusted her to wait at the bus stop on her own, independently. As such, the district was not found liable.
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Williams v. Weatherstone, May 14, 2014, New York State Court of Appeals
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