At the 2015 PRIMA Annual Conference, Charles Gfeller from the firm Seiger Gfeller Laurie LLP and Mike Otworth from Genesis Management & Insurance Services Corp presented a session titled “Managing the Risks of Scholastic Club Sports”. The focus on this presentation was the case law surrounding the issue of the duty to supervise students engaged in both sports clubs and other non-sports club activities.
Elementary & Secondary Education cases:
Munn v Hotchkiss School, 24 F Supp. 3d 155 (D. Conn. 2014) This case involved an exclusive private school. The courts indicated in the ruling that it would also apply to public schools. The case involved a school-sponsored trip to China for six weeks. In the information sent out to students in advance of the trip, they were never told they would go to rural areas and be exposed to insect bites. They were also not advised that bug spray was an important consideration. The field trip information all indicated the trip would be to an urban environment. The students were taken on a mountain hike in a rural area during the trip. While hiking down a mountain some students became lost for a period of time. By the time they were found they were covered with bug bites. The student in this case sustained lifelong injuries due to a tick bite that triggered viral meningitis which impacted the student’s brain function. The CDC had advised of concerns around insect born illness in this area and there were vaccines they recommended before traveling to such areas. This information was never shared with the students and their parents before the trip. The student advisors had brought bug spray for the day, but did not distribute it and use it. The jury issued a $41 million verdict which was is appeal and they expect it to be upheld on appeal. The jury indicated the school had a duty to protect the students in their care from known threats. They feel this case has widespread application for any school that takes students on school-sponsored trips.
Verhel by Verhel v. Independent School District No. 709, 359 N.W.2d 579 (Minn. 1984) This case involved cheerleaders who were placing banners outside the homes of football players before their first game. They were involved in an auto accident where the van they were riding in was struck by a drunk driver at 5:30am. The 11 cheerleaders had been driving around doing this activity since 1:30am. The faculty advisor for the cheer squad was aware the students were planning this activity and the school paid for the supplies they used. There was no faculty advisor present during the actual activity. The school argued that since there was no faculty advisory present they had no duty owed. The court ruled that with proper supervision this accident could have been prevented and the school had a duty to provide such supervision. The school was clearly aware the activity was taking place and they chose not to supervise it.
Universities and Colleges:
Colleges and universities are treated differently than Elementary & Secondary education schools in the courts. Historically, the case law had indicated colleges had a duty to act as a surrogate parent and protect the students. In the 60’s and 70’s the student rights movement and a reduction of the age of majority to age 18 changed this and essentially removed the duty to act as a surrogate parent from the colleges. Today, no special relationship exists between a university and the students in the eyes of the courts.
The first major case on this was Bradshaw v Rawlings 612 F. 2d 135 (3rd Cir 1979) The courts basically ruled that since one of the main things college does is to allow young adults to mature and be self-sufficient the college has no specific duty to supervise them and protect them from their own actions.
There are cases indicating that in fraternities and sororities the college may have a duty because the school recognizes the Greek system and authorizes them to exist. The schools also prohibit activities such as hazing and under-age drinking when they place rules around the Greek system. The case of Fruek v. University of Delaware, 594 A. 2d 506 (Del. 1991) involved a student injured during a hazing activity. The court ruled that the school’s policy against hazing created a duty by the college to ensure that rule was enforced. One factor the courts consider in Greek cases is where the houses are located. If they are on school property they college has an increased duty.
Club Sports and Activities:
With college sports clubs, for the most part the courts have followed rulings in non-sports areas and has ruled that the college has little duty to protect students engaged in such activities.
There are cases that indicate the college may have a duty if they are providing any of the following to the sports clubs:
- Travel and transportation
- Playing fields and facilities
The validity of Waivers and Assumption of Risk documents varies widely by the jurisdiction. Some states give such documents tremendous weight in litigation, while in other states the agreements are not considered valid.