Magazine article Momentum

Negligence Creates a Decidedly Unwelcome Atmosphere

Magazine article Momentum

Negligence Creates a Decidedly Unwelcome Atmosphere

Article excerpt

[very school and parish strives actively to be a welcoming community. But sometimes what you don't do leads to problems

Negligence is one of the most common types of legal claims asserted against Catholic schools and parish religious education programs. Such a claim can arise when a student, staff member or someone else is injured while participating in a school or parishsponsored activity because the school or parish program created or knew of a foreseeable danger but failed to address it. Administrators in the educational ministry have a special obligation to safeguard students, not only to avoid lawsuits, but because they seek to have the words of Jesus, came that they might have life and have it to the full" (Jn 10:10), guide the manner in which they care for the children to whom they minister.

This article provides a broad overview of the typical judicial analysis used to determine whether a party is liable for negligence. Its goal is to assist schools and parishes in assessing liability risks and in developing good risk management. While organizations can't prevent all accidents, they can minimize risk to unnecessary liability through proper risk analysis and management.

Simply stated, negligence arises out of the failure to do something you were obligated to do or to avoid something you were obligated to avoid. Determining whether a school or program has been negligent requires an analysis of four essential elements, which a plaintiff must prove to establish such a claim: (1) did the school or program have a duty to the plaintiff; (2) did it breach that duty; (3) if so, did that breach cause an injury; and (4) can the plaintiff prove an injury.

Elements of Negligence

Duty exists if a school or religious education program is legally obligated to do or avoid something in regard to a person. The obligation may be established by a statute or regulation and arises from the relationship between the parties (e.g., a contract). For example, many states have laws that require schools to undertake fire drills and provide fire-safety curriculum. This is a duty owed to the students. The common law-or law that is judicially created by precedent-also imposes obligations, such as the obligation to act as a reasonably prudent person in certain circumstances.

The first step in analyzing this element is identification of a duty, if any, owed to the plaintiff. Does the school owe the plaintiff any duty, either as the result of statutory or common law or as a result of its relationship with the plaintiff? For example, the law-common law in some states and statutory law in others-requires schools to protect students from foreseeable dangers, by virtue of the school-student relationship.

A duty is often defined by the "standard of care," or that degree of carefulness a person must use in discharging a duty owed to another. For example, most states require physicians to exercise the same degree of care that would have been exercised by a competent and reasonably prudent physician of the same specialty and geographic location. Similarly, many states require schools to exercise that degree of care that a reasonably prudent parent would use in similar circumstances. Failure to exercise the appropriate level of care constitutes a breach of duty.

Breach of duty is a straightforward issue: Did the defendant fail to fulfill a duty owed another person? Alternatively, proof of this element may be that the school carried out its duty, but failed to do so consistent with the applicable standard of care. An affirmative answer to either of the questions satisfies the second element of a negligence claim. In other words, if a plaintiff can prove that the school owed him or her a duty to do something, but then failed to do that thing (or did it, but failed to do so consistent with the applicable requisite degree of care), the plaintiff will satisfy this element.

A failure to conduct fire drills, in violation of a statute, would allow a plaintiff to establish that there was a statutory duty to do something but that the school failed to do it. …

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