Liability for Playground Injuries

What churches can learn from ruling involving a school.

A New York court ruled that a school was not liable for injuries sustained by a five-year-old child who was injured when he fell from monkey bars in the school's playground during recess.

At the time of the accident, there were approximately 100 students on the playground with six teachers' aides to supervise them. One teacher's aide was specifically assigned to supervise the monkey bars upon which the victim was playing at the time of the accident. The victim's parents sued the school, claiming that their child's injuries were attributable to the school's negligent supervision of the children on the playground and in permitting the victim to use playground equipment that was inappropriate for a five-year-old.

The school asked the trial court to dismiss the case, but the court ruled that there was sufficient evidence of negligence to let the case proceed to trial. The school appealed, and a state appeals court reversed the trial court's ruling and dismissed the case.

The appeals court began its opinion by noting that "schools have a duty to adequately supervise students in their charge and will be held liable for foreseeable injuries proximately related to the absence of adequate supervision." It concluded, however, that there was so little evidence of negligent supervision that the case had to be dismissed. It concluded that the school 'demonstrated that it provided adequate supervision during recess and, in any event, that the accident occurred in such a manner that it could not reasonably have been prevented by closer monitoring, thereby negating any alleged lack of supervision as the proximate cause of the victim's injuries."

The court also noted that the school had submitted evidence demonstrating that the playground equipment was appropriate for the victim's age group, and was not defective.

What This Means for Churches. Generally speaking, a church may be legally responsible on the basis of negligent supervision for injuries resulting from a failure to exercise adequate supervision of its programs and activities.

However, as this case illustrates, churches, like schools, are not "guarantors" of the safety of children on their premises. They have a duty of using reasonable care in the supervision of activities in which children are engaged. So long as they exercise reasonable care, they will not be negligent and therefore they will not be responsible for injuries occurring to children.

In this case, the court concluded that the school had provided adequate supervision of the children participating in recess on the school playground, and therefore it was not responsible for the victim's injury. Troiani v. White Plains City School District, 882 N.Y.S.2d 519 (N.Y. App. 2009).

This Recent Development appeared in the March/April 2010 edition of Church Law & Tax Report.

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