Last year, the Fourth Department held a district responsible for a student’s injuries before she boarded a school bus. This was a marked departure from previous case decisions, where the general rule had been that a district did not owe a duty of care to a student until it assumed physical custody of the student. The Court of Appeals decided earlier this month to reverse the Fourth Department’s decision, returning districts to the general physical custody standard once again. A full summary of the facts can be found in our alert from last year.
In Williams v. Weatherstone, the plaintiff proposed four theories of liability in an attempt to trigger a duty owed by the district. First, she argued that the student’s injuries happened during busing, “broadly construed.” Second, she contended that the district created a dangerous situation (inadvertently missing her stop, turning around, and planning to turn around again to pick her up at the right location). Third, she asked the court to extend liability under cases where someone signaled, incorrectly, that crossing a street was safe. Finally, she attempted to trigger a special duty because of the student’s mental limitations and receipt of an IEP. The Court of Appeals rejected each of these liability theories.
Of pivotal importance to the court in dismissing the complaint was the fact that the district never assumed physical custody of the student. She was injured while her bus was still moving in traffic. Thus, the incident did not occur during busing, even construed broadly, nor did the district place her in a dangerous situation, such as dropping her off in a hazardous location. Indeed, the mother set specific rules designed to keep the student away from the busy road when by herself waiting for the bus, demonstrating her implicit acknowledgement that she was responsible for her daughter’s safety during those times.
The court quickly rejected the comparison to signaling cases because neither the driver nor the monitor waved or signaled to the student as the bus missed her stop. And since her IEP only directed the district to transport her to and from school and did not call for an aide or escort while at the bus stop, the court rejected plaintiff’s attempt to trigger a special duty.
The court did recognize that there were instances where liability could be extended: where a district fails to perform a specific statutory duty, when it breaches a contractual obligation, or when courts decide to legislate a new duty. The court, however, refused to extend liability for any of these reasons here. It emphasized that extending such a duty beyond physical custody would be rare. Thus, the standard for triggering liability in transportation cases—actual custody at the time of injury—once again will govern transportation cases, with limited exceptions.
Click here to access the unpublished Court of Appeals decision.