On August 2, 2016, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice issued a decision dismissing a lawsuit against Peel District School Board, a principal and track coach. In Peters v. Peel District School Board et al.1, former high school student and track team member Tiffany Peters sued the Board, the principal, two vice-principals and the track coach for negligence after she was injured during a long-jump practice in 2005. The litigation had been dismissed against the two vice-principals in earlier proceedings.
Ms. Peters was injured during a track practice after school on April 19, 2005. The parties agreed on some of the basic facts, including that Ms. Peters reported having hurt her left knee during the practice and had an operation eight months later to repair a tear in the lateral meniscus on her left knee. She alleged that after the injury and surgery, her condition deteriorated and although she entered university, she ultimately did not succeed in her dream of being a singer, dancer or actor.
In her lawsuit, she alleged that the Board and its employees had been negligent and caused permanent disability, leaving her unable to pursue her career goals. The Court dismissed her case and rejected her claim for damages.
The Court in Peters applied the landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision from 1981 on the standard of care in claims of school board negligence, Myers v. Peel County Board of Education.2 A school board and its employees owe a duty of care to students known as the standard of a careful and prudent parent. The Supreme Court explained how to apply the standard in individual cases in the following excerpt from Myers:
[I]t remains the appropriate standard for such cases. It is not, however, a standard which can be applied in the same manner and to the same extent in every case. Its application will vary from case to case and will depend upon the number of students being supervised at any given time, the nature of the exercise or activity in progress, the age and the degree of skill and training which the students may have received in connection with such activity, the nature and condition of the equipment in use at the time, competency and capacity of the students involved, and a host of other matters which may be widely varied but which, in a given, case, may affect the application of the prudent parent standard to the conduct of the school authority in the circumstances.3
At the trial in Peters, the Board did not concede that Ms. Peters tore her left meniscus on April 19, 2005 and submitted to the Court that it could have occurred any time prior to an MRI conducted on September 16, 2005. However, the Court concluded on a balance of probabilities that Ms. Peters tore her lateral meniscus in her left knee on April 19, 2005 during the track practice. The questions for the Court then became:
- whether the Board was negligent prior to, at the time of, or after the accident;
- what was Ms. Peters' current physical condition and prognosis, and
- whether her current physical condition was causally related to the April 19, 2005 accident.
It is worth noting that the Trial Judge found significant inconsistencies in Ms. Peters' evidence and decided it was not reliable. In many instances, other evidence, including Ms. Peters' own prior statements given at examinations for discovery, contradicted her testimony. On the other hand, the Board's witnesses and testimony (given by the Track Coach and Principal) were found to be credible and reliable.
The Court concluded that the Board was not negligent prior to the accident nor at the time of the accident. This conclusion was based largely on the testimony of the Track Coach and another track student and the following key facts:
- The Track Coach was on the field when Ms. Peters' injury occurred. The Track Coach was complying with the OPHEA4 guidelines for supervision.
- The Track Coach properly instructed Ms. Peters on long jump, and instructed her only to perform "run-throughs", i.e. omitting the final part of the jump where the student takes off from the track and lands in the pit.
- The Track Coach properly inspected the long jump pit.
The Court also reviewed what occurred after Ms. Peters' injury and found the Board met the standard of care of a prudent parent. The Track Coach, the Principal, Ms. Peters and Ms. Peters' family members who cared for Ms. Peters after the injury gave evidence.
The Trial Judge concluded that the Track Coach assessed Ms. Peters' injury and determined the best treatment was "RICE" – Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate, which she communicated to Ms. Peters. She accompanied Ms. Peters and another student into the school and confirmed that arrangements had been made for a ride home for Ms. Peters. At that point, she returned to the field to put equipment away. In the circumstances, her actions met the standard of a prudent parent.
One of Ms. Peters' allegations was that she had been left alone at the school after the injury. However, the facts did not support her allegations. The Principal gave testimony about his practice of leaving his door open to the foyer so he could actively supervise students and intervene when necessary. On the evening of the injury, the Principal spoke with Ms. Peters and heard that she was waiting for a ride. She did not appear to be in distress. The Court found that the Principal's interaction with Ms. Peters met the standard of care of a prudent parent.
The Court found that the Track Coach and Principal did not breach the standard of care of a prudent parent in their dealings with Ms. Peters prior to the injury, at the time of the injury or following the accident when Ms. Peters was picked up and taken home. The claim was therefore dismissed.
As is standard practice, the Trial Judge in Peters assessed the damages even though the claim was dismissed. The Trial Judge reviewed extensive medical evidence and concluded that Ms. Peters' post-accident condition was not causally related to the injury on April 19, 2005, but was more likely related to her excessive weight gain. The other difficulty with her claim was that Ms. Peters self-reported pain that could not be objectively quantified or verified.
Ms. Peters claimed that the injury had diminished her employment prospects and her aspiration to become an actor, dancer and singer. However, the evidence showed that she undertook little preparation to achieve her dreams. For example, she did not, at any point, enroll in competitive programs for acting, dancing or singing.
This case confirms that the courts will continue to apply Myers and the standard of care of a careful and prudent parent in cases of school board negligence. The application of that standard depends on the nature of the activity and students. In this case, it was highly relevant that the Track Coach was consistent in the training and supervision of her long-jump students and that she followed the OPHEA guidelines applicable to track and field. Both the Principal and the Track Coach provided an appropriate level of care and attention to Ms. Peters after her injury.