Washington Court of Appeals Affirms That Claims For Negligent Training and Supervision Are Not Mutually Exclusive of Claims for Vicarious Liability in Harris v. Federal Way Public Schools

Kelsey is a partner at Holt Woods & Scisciani LLP’s Seattle office who focuses her practice on complex civil and commercial litigation. Her practice involves handling of a wide range of cases, including catastrophic injuries, traumatic brain injuries, product liability, premises liability, medical and professional liability and construction defects. She is admitted to practice in the federal and state courts in Alaska, Idaho and Washington. As an admittee to several state and federal bars, Kelsey is adept to represent and manage risk for clients who do business across the Pacific Northwest.

kshewbert@hwslawgroup.com

April 14, 2022

Summary

Sixteen-year-old Allen Harris fatally suffered a sudden cardiac arrest during a summer football conditioning workout at Federal Way High School (“FWHS”). Allen’s parents Dinitia and Roderick Harris, individually and on behalf of the estate (“Estate”), sued the Federal Way Public School District (“District”).  The Estate alleged, in part, that the District owed an enhanced and solemn duty of reasonable care to protect its students. The Estate asserted that the District breached that duty by, among other things, failing to create a medical emergency response plan, failing to properly train its coaches, failing to provide prompt and immediate medical attention, and otherwise failing its obligations to protect student athletes in its charge from foreseeable harms including those caused by sudden cardiac arrest.

Division I of the Washington Court of Appeals granted discretionary review to consider the District’s appeal of the trial court’s decision denying the District’s motion for summary judgment and dismissal of the Estate’s claims. The District argued that, amongst other things, the trial court erred in not dismissing the Estate’s negligent-training and negligent-supervision claim when it is undisputed that vicarious liability applied to the coaches’ conduct.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision and held that the District owed a duty to Allen arising out of the special relationship between school and student.

Facts and Procedural History

On July 24, 2018, the FWHS football team held an optional official summer football conditioning workout. During football practices, FWHS normally has an athletic trainer present. During summer conditioning, FWHS did not have their athletic trainer present.  The temperature started in high 70s and reached the low to mid-80s during the day. The players had been sprinting for 15 to 20 minutes when Allen collapsed and began having what appeared to be seizures. Allen had no history of seizures and no head trauma when he collapsed.  One of the coaches called 911 and told the 911 dispatcher that Allen was unconscious and seizing. Approximately 5 minutes into the 911 call, he again told the dispatcher that Allen was “still not conscious.” No one performed CPR and no one went to obtain the school’s automated external defibrillator.  Allen was transported to the hospital where he died approximately two hours later. Sudden cardiac arrest was the only diagnosis to explain Allen’s death.

The Estate brought the underlying action for negligence against the District. The Estate did not name the individual FWHS coaching staff. The Estate alleged, in part, that the District owed an enhanced and solemn duty of reasonable care to protect its students. The Estate asserted that the District breached that duty by failing to create a medical emergency response plan, failing to properly train its coaches, failing to provide prompt and immediate medical attention, and otherwise failing its obligations to protect student athletes in its charge from foreseeable harms.

The District moved for summary judgment on two grounds. First, the District moved to dismiss the Estate’s direct claims for negligent training and supervision of its coaches. The District argued that negligent training and supervision were not viable claims because vicarious liability applied. Second, the District moved to dismiss the vicarious liability claim.  Estate opposed summary judgment.  The Estate provided testimony of experts establishing its prima facie case of negligence against the District based on its common law duty to Allen arising out of its special relationship.

Direct Negligence Claim Against the District

The District argued that the trial court erred in refusing to dismiss the Estate’s direct negligence claim against the District because such claims are unavailable where it is undisputed that vicarious liability applied.  Put another way, the District contended that claims for negligent training and supervision and claims for vicarious liability are mutually exclusive. Thus, according to the District, where an employee is acting within the scope of employment, the Estate is limited to a claim for vicarious liability and the Estate may not bring direct claims for negligence against the District.

On the other hand, the Estate contended that based on the special relationship between school districts and students, including student athletes, the District owed a common law duty of care to Allen to protect him from foreseeable risks of harm.

Duty To Protect When A Special Relationship Exists       

Generally, there is no duty to prevent a third party from harming another unless a special relationship exists between the defendant and either the third party or the foreseeable victim of the third party’s conduct.  Thus, when a principal has a special relationship with another person, the principal owes that person a duty of reasonable care with regard to risks arising out of the relationship, including the risk that agents of the principal will harm the person with whom the principal has such a special relationship. RESTATEMENT (THIRD) OF AGENCY § 7.05(2).

There is a special relationship between school districts and their students. Washington courts have long recognized that school districts have an enhanced and solemn duty of reasonable care to protect their students.  They must protect the students in their custody from foreseeable dangers.  Courts have explained that the rational for imposing this duty on a school district is that the victim is placed under its control and protection, resulting in the student’s loss to control themselves.

This duty extends to students engaged in interscholastic sports. As a natural incident to the relationship of a student athlete and his or her coach, the student athlete is usually placed under the coach’s considerable degree of control. The student is thus subject to the risk that the school district or its agent will breach this duty of care.  Thus, regardless of whether there are separate possible causes of action against the coaches, or against the District under a theory of respondeat superior, there remains a separate cause of action against the District based on its common law special relationship.

The Court of Appeals compared this special relationship akin to a resident and a group home.  In that case, the court first concluded that there was a special relationship between a group home for the developmentally disabled and its vulnerable residents. And, as a result, the group home had a duty to protect its residents from all foreseeable harms.  The court went on to distinguish other theories of liability and confirmed the distinction between vicarious liability and negligent hiring, supervision, and retention. Vicarious liability, otherwise known as the doctrine of respondeat superior, imposes liability on an employer for the torts of an employee who is acting on the employer’s behalf. Where the employee steps aside from the employer’s purposes in order to pursue a personal objective of the employee, the employer is not vicariously liable. Whether or not the employer has any particular relationship to the victim of the employee’s negligence or intentional wrongdoing, the scope of employment limits the employer’s vicarious liability.

But then, importantly, the court continued: however, the scope of employment is not a limit on an employer’s liability for a breach of its own duty of care.  The court explained, that causes of action for negligent hiring, retention, and supervision are based on the theory that such negligence on the part of the employer is a wrong to the injured party, entirely independent of the liability of the employer under the doctrine of respondeat superior.  And further, that the theory of liability for negligent supervision is based on the special relationship between the employer and employee, not the relationship between group home and resident.

Holding and Implications

Consistent with resident/group home case, the Court of Appeals held that a special relationship between the District and student athletes created a duty of reasonable care, owed by the District to its student athletes, to protect them from all foreseeable harms. This theory of liability is distinct from separate theories of liability based on negligent supervision and training and vicarious liability.  The Estate asserted that the District breached its duty by, among other things, failing to create a medical emergency response plan, failing to properly train its coaches, failing to provide prompt and immediate medical attention, and otherwise failing its obligations to protect student athletes in its charge from foreseeable harms including those caused by sudden cardiac arrest, which was supported by expert declarations.  Therefore, the Court of Appeals affirmed that the trial court did not err in denying the District’s motion for summary judgment.

This is an important decision for all employers as the Court of Appeals held that employers may owe a separate and independent duty to certain individuals arising out of a special relationship regardless if additional claims are asserted against the employer under a theory of vicarious liability.

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