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February 04, 2013

Summary Judgment Granted To School District In Negligent Supervision Case

The Court of Appeals has long held that a school district may be held liable for the criminal intervention of a third party, against a student, where the criminal conduct is a "reasonably foreseeable" consequence of circumstances created by a school district's lack of supervision. See Bell v. Board of Education of City of N.Y., 90 N.Y.2d 944 (1997). A school, however, will not be held liable for the unanticipated acts of a third party toward a student unless the school had "actual or constructive notice of prior similar conduct," such that the school could have reasonably anticipated the acts of the third party. See Brandy B. v. Eden Cent. School Dist., 15 NY3d 297, 302 (2010). As the school district's actions in such cases are not the direct cause of the student's injuries, the ultimate question is whether the third party's conduct was unforeseeable, such that it would constitute an intervening act that breaks the causal connection between the alleged lack of supervision and the injuries sustained. See Mirand v. City of New York, 84 NY2d 44, 50 (1994).

In Geywits v. Charlotte Val. Cent. Sch. Dist., 98 A.D.3d 804 (3d Dep't 2012), the infant plaintiffs were first grade students attending a school that housed students from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. It was alleged that on at least three occasions, while certain infant plaintiffs were walking unattended, a sophomore student lured them into a restroom and abused them. The school district moved for summary judgment contending, inter alia, that it had no notice of prior similar conduct. The lower court denied summary judgment, and the school district appealed.

In a 4-1 decision, the Appellate Division, Third Department, reversed, concluding that the school district was entitled to summary judgment. Plaintiffs argued that the school district had constructive notice as the abuse occurred at least three times over several months, three of the boys came back late from breakfast during the time period, the restroom did not have an exterior door, and the restroom was located in the main hallway, next to the superintendent's and principal's offices. The Court rejected these arguments, holding that there was no constructive notice as students of all grades, as well as staff, used the subject bathroom, and the first graders explained their lateness as using the restroom. Furthermore, the Court reasoned that although there was a question of fact of whether the school district provided a sufficient level of supervision, as a matter of law, the school district had no notice of the illegal actions of a third party, nor could they have been reasonably anticipated. Thus, the abuse was unforeseeable.

The Geywits decision reinforces the limited duty of care owed by schools to a student, who is injured through the acts of a third party. School districts have no obligation to provide a heightened level of supervision in the absence of actual or constructive notice that a third party's illegal actions reasonably could be anticipated.

If you require further information regarding the information presented in this Legal Alert and its impact on your organization, please contact Matthew J. Larkin, Chair of the Torts & Products Liability Defense Practice Area at (315) 425-2805 or mlarkin@hblaw.com.

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