PROVIDENCE, R.I. (Legal Newsline) - The Supreme Court of Rhode Island has held that a high school was not liable for injuries to a student who was injured during horseplay he initiated.
Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell wrote the opinion for the unanimous five-member court. The opinion, affirming the judgment of the Providence County Superior Court, was filed on April 12.
On Jan. 12, 2006, after classes had concluded for the day at Bishop Hendricken High School, student Anthony Daniels grabbed another student's book bag and ran into the boys' bathroom. Daniels entered a stall and pretended that he was going to flush the book bag down the toilet, the opinion says.
The subject of the prank, Oliver Goudiably, came into the bathroom with another student, Zachery Fluette. Fluette kicked the stall door open and the door hit Daniels in the head. When Fluette then pushed Daniels, Daniels stumbled toward a window and his hand broke the window glass, lacerating his wrist.
According to the opinion, the above facts were not in dispute.
Cheryl Daniels, the mother of Anthony Daniels, filed suit against Fluette, the school and its agents on Oct. 31, 2007, alleging negligence. The Superior Court granted summary judgment in favor of the school and Brother Leto, the school's principal, and Daniels appealed.
Zachery Fluette settled with Daniels prior to the hearing of the appeal and Daniels did not object to the granting of summary judgment to Brother Leto so by the time the Supreme Court heard the appeal, only the summary judgment in favor of the school was at issue.
On appeal, Daniels argued that the superior court erred by granting summary judgment to the school because the school had a duty to supervise its students, which it breached. Daniels argued that the whether the level of supervision extended into the boys bathroom after school was a fact for the jury to determine.
Daniels also argued that because horseplay in boys' bathrooms was "reasonably foreseeable," the school should have installed safety glass in the bathroom window.
The school argued that because the incident occurred after school and not in an after-school activity location, the school had no duty to supervise Daniels. Even if it did have the duty to supervise Daniels, the school argued that it cannot be held to be insurers of their students' safety and any liability should be limited to the injuries proximately caused by lack of supervision.
"We agree [with other jurisdictions] that, rather than hold schools to the standard of being insurers of their students' safety, a plaintiff seeking to hold a school liable for injuries resulting from the acts of another student must show that such acts could have been reasonably foreseen by the school," Suttell wrote.
"Here, plaintiff offered no evidence that there was a history of "horseplay" in the area where the incident took place. Nor was there any evidence offered that complaints had been made about Fluette's conduct. Absent even the allegation of such a history, it was not error for the hearing justice to grant summary judgment for defendant, as plaintiff has not proven the existence of a disputed issue of material fact."
To the alternative argument that the school had a duty to protect its students and that its failure to install safety glass in boys' bathroom was a breach of duty, the court reached a similar conclusion.
"[P]laintiff offers several cases in which courts have held that failure to install safety glass in heavily used doors may be the basis of liability, notwithstanding the fact that safety glass was not required by the building codes," Suttell wrote.
The school had argued that safety glass was not required in the bathroom window under the building code as one of their defenses.
"The plaintiff's reliance on these "door cases" is misplaced. In each of these cases, the hazard was quite foreseeable... By contrast, in this case there was no evidence submitted that the window in the boys' bathroom received heavy use or that it was situated in such a way as to pose a particular danger," Suttell wrote.
"On the contrary, defendants offered an affidavit that stated that the glass in that window had not been replaced since the school was built in 1959. Unlike the 'door cases,' here plaintiff presented no evidence at all that would tend to show that it was foreseeable that a student could be injured as a result of the school's failure to install safety glass.
"While compliance with building codes alone may not provide a complete defense, the school had no reason to foresee that the window might pose a danger, and imposing liability here would be tantamount to making the school an insurer of its students. Accordingly, we find no error with the hearing justice's grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants."