Key Point Many churches own 15-passenger vans that are used to carry passengers on church-approved trips. The safety of these vehicles has been questioned in a number of safety advisories issued by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). Church leaders should be familiar with the risk that these vehicles pose, and take steps to manage that risk.
A federal court in Washington ruled that a school could not be liable for the death of a 15-year-old student while traveling in a 15-passenger van on a field trip that was not under the supervision or control of the school. A group of nine high school students were traveling to another city as part of the Upward Bound Program. The van hit black ice, the driver of the van lost control and the van rolled. During the rollover, two students sustained fatal injuries. The families of one of the deceased victims (a 15-year old girl) sued the school, claiming that it negligently supervised the victims by allowing them to travel in a 15-passenger van, and that it negligently failed to warn the victim or her parents of the dangers of riding in a 15-passenger van. The school argued that it was not legally obligated to supervise students not in its custody or control.
The Upward Bound Program is a federally funded program, organized and administered by Columbia Basin College (“CBC”), which targets high school students who generally would be the first students in their family to attend college or students from economically disadvantaged families. CBC employees visit various high schools and recruit students into the program. At the time of her death, the victim was on a field trip sponsored by CBC through its Upward Bound Program. The District approved the victim’s absence from school so that she could attend the field trip. The Upward Bound Program employees transported the victim, and others, in a 15-passenger van that day.
The victim’s parents presented evidence that use of a 15-passenger van was dangerous and improper for transporting high school students. They alleged that the school failed to ensure that its students who were participating in the Upward Bound Program were protected against traveling in an unsafe 15-passenger van. The school, however, asserted that use of 15-passenger vans for the transportation of students is perfectly legal, and that there are no federal or state restrictions that would prevent the use of these vans to transport high school students. The school asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit.
The court rejected the school’s request to dismiss the case. It conceded that there was no evidence that the use of the 15-passenger van was in violation of state or federal law, but it concluded that the parents had produced “sufficient evidence supporting their theory that the vans utilized for the field trip had known safety problems” to avoid a dismissal of their claims. The school’s liability for allowing students to ride in a 15-passenger van would have to be decided by a jury.
The parents claimed that the school was responsible for their daughter’s death on the basis of negligent supervision. The school asserted that even if 15-passenger vans presented known dangers, it was not legally obligated to supervise the victim or any of the other students because they were not in its custody or control at the time of the accident.
The court observed:
Schools are charged with the responsibility of supervising children under their control during the time that they are at school under the doctrine of “in loco parentis.” This duty to supervise and protect students is based on the assumption that the school has direct control of the student and the parent does not during the time the student is at school. A duty of reasonable care is imposed by law on the school to take certain precautions to protect the pupils in its custody from dangers reasonably to be anticipated. Responsibility of a school to supervise students is not limited to school hours, school property, or school curricular activities. The duty to supervise also extends to school sponsored extracurricular activities under the control of the school and within its scope of authority. To qualify as school sponsored, the activity must be within the scope of the school’s authority and the school must exercise control over the activities.
The basic premise for fault in a custodial supervision situation is that a school has the power to control the conduct of its students while they are in school or engaged in school activities, and with that power goes the responsibility of reasonable supervision. As noted by school, “it stands to reason that when the student is not in the district’s custody and control then the district does not stand in the shoes of the parent and does not have the power to control the conduct of the student.”
The court conceded that the school approved the victim’s absence from school so that she could attend the field trip, but it concluded that there was no evidence that it had control over the Upward Bound Program or the transportation related to the programs activities. The Upward Bound Program employees transported the victim, and others, in the 15-passenger van on the day of the accident. The school “did not exercise or assume control or supervision over the Upward Bound Program in general or the CBC planned and organized field trip. CBC was solely responsible for administering the Upward Bound Program, the school did not have any authority to make decisions regarding the program, and CBC exercised and assumed control and supervision over and arranged the transportation for the Upward Bound Program field trip.”
The court concluded that the school “had no authority to direct how the students would be transported on the Upward Bound Program field trips,” and therefore it could not be liable for the victim’s death on the basis of negligent supervision. It granted the school’s request to dismiss this claim.
Failure to warn
The parents claimed that the school was negligent for failing to warn its students and their parents of the dangers of traveling in a 15-passenger van. The court concluded that the parents produced sufficient evidence supporting their theory that 15-passenger vans have known safety problems. But, the court ruled that the school had no legal duty to warn the victim or her parents of the dangers associated with 15-passenger vans since the victim was not in the custody of the school when she participated in the Upward Bound Program field trip. As such, “the school did not have a legal duty to protect or keep her safe while she participated in the field trip. Because no legal duty existed, the school is not liable, as a matter of law, for failing to warn of alleged risks associated with 15-passenger vans.”
Application. This case is significant for two reasons. First, it contains an excellent analysis of the liability of a school, or church, for off-campus trips. Such trips are common, especially for church youth groups. As the court noted in this case, when a parent transfers custody of a minor child to a school, the school acts “in loco parentis” (in the place of the parent), and this means that it must exercise the same care that a parent would exercise in the supervision and protection of the child until custody is returned to the parent. This duty extends to activities that are off of school property that are “under the control of the school and within its scope of authority.” The very same reasoning applies to churches.
Second, the court concluded that the parents had presented sufficient evidence supporting their theory that the 15-passenger van utilized for the field trip had known safety problems to avoid a dismissal of their claims. Here is a recognition, by a federal court, of the potential dangers associated with these vehicles. However, the court concluded that the school could not be liable on the basis of negligent supervision for allowing students to ride in such a vehicle, or for failing to warn students and parents of the risks associated with these vehicles, since the victim was not in the custody of the school when she participated in the field trip. Campos v. Prosser School District, 2008 WL 4587298 (E.D. Wash. 2008).
This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, July/August 2009.