Washington State Supreme Court Holds that School District is Potentially Liable for Death of Student Occurring Off Campus
Meyers v. Ferndale School District
On March 4, 2021, the Washington State Supreme Court issued its opinion in Meyers v. Ferndale School District and determined the alleged acts of negligence on the part of the school district were not too remote to be a legal cause of a student’s death.
The issue before the Supreme Court was an analysis of the proximate cause prong of a negligence action. While the analysis regarding a school district’s unique duty to students has some relevance, the Court’s analysis toward proximate cause has greater implications.
Relevant Facts and Background
This case involves a wrongful death action brought on behalf of Gabriel Anderson who was struck and killed by a vehicle while on an off campus walk with his P.E. class. He was a student in the Ferndale School District and his P.E. teacher, Evan Ritchie, decided to take his class on an off campus walk. Ritchie explained the route, logistics and which side of the road to walk on to his students. The group of students had their back to traffic.
At the same time, William Klein was traveling the same direction of the student in his vehicle. He apparently fell asleep and his vehicle left his lane of travel, crossed the opposite lane of travel, jumped the curb and sidewalk and struck Anderson and three other students. Two students, including Anderson, were killed, and two students were severely injured.
Ferndale has two policies regarding off campus field trips and excursions:
- Policy 2320 states: [t]he superintendent will develop procedures for the operation of a field trip or outdoor education activity which will ensure that the safety of the student is protected and that parent permission is obtained before the student leaves the school
- Policy 2320 P-1 provides specific procedures, requiring permission from the principal one month in advance, parents notice and permission form, arrange transportation, plans to keep the group together, and provide list of students and chaperones.
Ferndale policy did not define “Field Trip.” Ritchie and the principal did not consider off campus walks as field trips. They did not follow the procedures, nor did they notify the parents that the students were going to leave the school’s campus.
Anderson’s estate alleged negligence by the driver and the school district. The trial court dismissed the claim against Ferndale citing a lack of a legal duty, holding that the crash was not foreseeable. The Court of Appeals reversed, determining there was sufficient factual issues on duty and proximate cause. The Court of Appeals stated that the trial court should have based its ruling not on the specific harm that happened, but on the “general field of danger created when Ferndale staff took Anderson off campus for a walk along a public roadway.” Ferndale challenged the Court of Appeals analysis of proximate cause.
The Washington Supreme Court affirmed. The Supreme Court noted that while the Court of Appeals erred in analyzing legal causation, it properly concluded that material issues of fact existed concerning proximate causation.
Proximate Cause Analysis
To succeed in a negligence action, a plaintiff must establish four things: 1) the existence of a duty to the plaintiff; 2) a breach of that duty; 3) a resulting injury; and 4) the breach as the proximate cause of the injury. While the school district’s duty was not an issue in this matter, the Washington State Supreme Court explained that a school district owes duty to its students to anticipate and protect against potential harms, including harm inflicted by third parties, as long as the harm was foreseeable. The Court then addressed the key issues on appeal – proximate cause.
Proximate cause is generally a question of fact for the jury, but if reasonable minds could not differ, these factual questions may be determined as a matter of law. Proximate cause is composed of both cause in fact and legal cause. While cause in fact focuses on a “but for” connection, legal cause is grounded in policy determinations as to how far the consequences of a defendant’s act should extend.
In this matter, the Court of Appeals conflated the duty of the defendant and the legal cause. The Washington State Supreme Court clarified that legal causation should not be assumed to exist every time a duty of care has been established. Legal cause is determined by utilizing “mixed considerations of logic, common sense, justice, policy, and precedent.” The main question to focus on is whether the connection between the resulting harm and the conduct of the defendant is “too remote or insubstantial to impose liability.”
The Washington State Supreme Court ultimately found that the connection between the student’s death and the alleged negligent conduct of defendant (i.e., taking a walk off campus without the adequate safety precautions), was not too remote or insubstantial to impose liability on the defendant.
The Washington Supreme Court’s analysis provided two helpful contentions for defendants regarding proximate cause arguments in future cases. First, the establishment of a duty is not determinative of whether legal cause also exists. Second, a defendant’s ability to argue that their particular conduct and resulting harm was too remote or insubstantial to impose liability may have expanded. At a minimum, in analyzing proximate cause, there should be a separate and distinct inquiry into legal cause which will allow for defendants to make stronger public policy arguments instead of just arguing lack of foreseeability.