Schools must take reasonable steps to protect their students from foreseeable injury inflicted by third parties. A trip to Starbucks after track practice did not relieve the school of its duty to a student when she returned to school and was stabbed on campus. The school had a "special relationship" with the student under the law and owed her a heightened duty of care while she was present on campus during open hours.
Plaintiff C. Achay (Achay), a sophomore at Edison High School, participated on the school-sponsored track team after school. On the day in question, track practice ended early and Achay, along with a friend, walked to a nearby Starbucks to grab a snack and then returned to campus about 45 minutes later, where they were to be picked up at the time track practice normally ended. On the way back, the students encountered a person they felt was "suspicious" and taunted them. He was later identified as a former student of the high school. Achay and her friend were frightened by this person and called a friend to stay with them once they reached school grounds. They also locked themselves in the girls' locker room for a period of time to escape this threatening person. After grabbing her things from the girls' locker room, Achay finally made her way out to the school parking lot to meet her ride home. During the walk to the parking lot, the suspicious person rode up on his bike alongside Achay and stabbed her in the buttocks. Achay suffered serious injury including severe damage to her colon.
Achay brought a lawsuit for negligence against Huntington Beach Union High School District (District) for negligence and premises liability (the premises claim was later dropped). The District filed a motion for summary judgment stating that Achay's complaint failed to establish the duty and causation necessary to sustain a claim of negligence. The trial court found that the District's duty of care to Achay ended when she left campus to go to Starbucks.
The court of appeal disagreed., finding dispositive, instead, that Achay returned to campus to get her books and to meet her ride home. She had only left campus to grab a Starbucks because her track practice ended early that day. The court stated: "Achay's brief departure from school is a red herring." The court held that summary judgment was inappropriate because triable issues of material fact have clearly been shown by Achay. The trial court's decision was reversed.
A plaintiff's suit for negligence must prove the following elements: duty, breach, causation and damages. Ann M. v. Pacific Plaza Shopping Center (1993) 6 Cal.4th 666, 673-674. Generally, courts examining negligence cases determine the scope and existence of a duty as a matter of law, while breach and causation are questions of fact to be determined by a trier of fact. Staats v. Vintner's Golf Club, LLC (2018) 25 Cal. App.5th 826, 837.
The District argued that it did not owe Achay a duty under the circumstances presented in her case. It specifically contended that it did not owe her a legal duty at the time the stabbing occurred because it was after school hours and subsequent to her leaving campus for 45 minutes and then returning. The District further asserted that even if a duty existed, Achay failed to bring evidence of a causal connection between the alleged breach and her injury.
The Duty of Care Question
The court first considered whether the District owed Achay a duty of care under the facts presented. The general rule for duty of care is that one owes no duty to control the conduct of another, nor to warn those endangered by such conduct. But a duty of care to control the conduct of another may arise if:
- A special relationship exists between the actor and the third person that imposes a duty upon the actor to control the third party's conduct; or
- A special relationship exists between the actor and the other that gives the other a right to protection." Leger v. Stockton Unified School Dist. (1988) 202 Cal.App.3d 1448, 1458.
Established case law has found that a special relationship exists between a school district and its students. Schools have an affirmative duty to take reasonable steps to ensure student safety. M.W. v. Panama Buena Vista School Dist. (2003) 110 Cal.App.4th 508, 517. Numerous other decisions also support the principle that "school personnel owes students under their supervision a protective duty of care, for breach of which a school district may be held vicariously liable." C.A. v. William S. Hart Union High School Dist. (2012) 53 Cal.4th 861, 869-870. This duty includes taking reasonable actions to keep students safe from foreseeable injuries caused by third parties. Id. at 870-71. Foreseeable injuries are described as injuries of the general type that could likely happen in the absence of reasonable safeguards. Id.
In the case at hand, Achay's injuries occurred when she was on campus after track practice to meet her ride home. Although it is true that she left school to go to Starbucks after an early release from practice that day, she was, in fact, on campus to retrieve her things and to get a ride home when the incident occurred. Also, school-related activities were still happening on campus at that time and students were still present. The court here held that the District owed Achay a duty of care because "she was stabbed while she was on campus during school-related or encouraged functions," such as track practice. The fact that Achay left campus for 45 minutes and then returned did not alter the duty. Upon her return to campus during normal after-school hours when activities were still going on imposed a duty of care on the school to take reasonable means to keep her safe. The court also found that it was also foreseeable that a high school student would leave campus for a short period of time and then return to pick up books and meet a ride. Achay’s brief departure from campus did not relieve the District of its duty of care.
Causation is established by proof that due to the defendant's breach of their duty of care, their action, or inaction was a "substantial factor" in causing the harm suffered by the plaintiff. Bowman v. Wyatt (2010) 186 Cal.App.4th 286, 312 Causation must rise to a level of reasonable probability that the defendant brought about the harm.
Here, Achay first encountered the third party who caused her harm while she was walking back to school from Starbucks. The encounter became so alarming that Achay and another student locked themselves in the girls' locker room once returning to school out of fear of this person. School policy allowed the public to enter school grounds after 2:30 p.m. until 10:00 p.m. when the campus was closed and locked. This policy was maintained even though the evidence showed that hundreds of students were often on campus after 2:30 p.m. to participate in school sponsored sports and other activities. The general practice was for coaches to supervise student safety during practice, but once practice ended there was no supervision or security on campus for students. In fact, in the three years prior to this incident, there were approximately 30 student safety incidents on campus and though none of those incidents occurred after 2:30 p.m. the court still found this to be relevant evidence in regard to the issue of causation, sufficient to find a triable issue of material fact to preclude summary judgment for the District.
Based on the foregoing, the court found the following triable issues of material fact existed as to whether the District took reasonable steps to secure the safety of Achay during after school activities. Was it reasonable to open to the campus to the public after 2:30 p.m.? Was having supervisors on campus until 4:00 p.m. sufficient to ensure the safety of those participating in after school activities as late as 6:00 p.m.? Did the fact that the students sought help from peers before the stabbing incident indicate that they would have sought assistance from security had there been any on campus? Did the District's argument that high school students require less supervision hold water? The court concluded that these questions and those related should clearly be examined and ultimately resolved by a trier of fact.
In conclusion, the court of appeal found that the District owed Achay a reasonable duty of care to keep her safe during afterschool activities. This duty applied even though she left school for a short time and then returned to campus. Questions of causation and the District's taking or not taking reasonable steps to ensure her safety were questions for a trier of fact. Summary judgment for the District was reversed.
Achay v. Huntington Beach Union High School District (4th Dist. 2022) 80 Cal.App.5th 528.