School District Did Not Owe Duty to Student Hit By Car

In a decision issued today, Williams v. Weatherstone, the New York Court of Appeals held that a school district owed no duty to a student (designated as “A.” in the opinion) who was struck by a car while waiting for the school bus.

The accident happened as follows:

On March 13th, A.’s newly assigned bus, with the monitor onboard, left the bus garage on time, at about 6:50 A.M., or before sunrise. A.’s house was less than 10 minutes away, much closer than the previous first stop on this route, and the bus driver simply forgot to pick her up as he traveled west on Route 5. Neither the driver nor the monitor waved or otherwise signaled to A., whom the monitor glimpsed standing near the red dumpster as the bus passed by.

Alerted by the monitor to the missed stop, the bus driver proceeded 250 feet or so farther west to a vacant gas station on the corner where Route 31B meets Route 5 at an angle. He turned right into Route 31B and entered the gas station, turned the bus around to face Route 5, waited for eastbound traffic to clear (there was no westbound traffic at the time) and exited onto Route 5, traveling east behind a car operated by defendant Sharon T. Weatherstone (Weatherstone). The bus driver intended to go past A.’s house on the opposite (east) side of Route 5 a few hundred feet to a golf course, also on the highway’s east side, where he could turn around again and pull back onto Route 5 traveling west. This would put him in position to pick up A. at her designated stop at the foot of the driveway to her house.

Shortly after the bus driver headed east on Route 5, though, both he and the monitor caught sight of what appeared to be debris being flung up into the air in front of the Weatherstone vehicle. Weatherstone steered her car off onto the shoulder of the highway, and as the bus driver slowed the bus down, the monitor spotted A. lying, obviously seriously injured, in the eastbound lane.

After discussing the application of Pratt v. Robinson, 39 NY2d 554 (1976), the “seminal case on the duty owed by a school district to students whom it transports”, the court concluded:

The concept of in loco parentis is the fountainhead of the duty of care owed by a school to its students[.] … In Pratt and Ernest [v. Red Cr. Cent. School Dist., 93 NY2d 664 (1999)] we identified limited situations where a school might be liable in the absence of physical custody of an injured child. But in the circumstances described, the school still exercised control over the time, place and conditions of a child’s release from its physical custody to the protection of a parent or guardian. Here, A. never left plaintiff’s custody and control on the morning of March 13th, and plaintiff trusted A. to wait at her designated bus stop independently. Because the accident did not happen while A. was within the District’s custody and control, the District is not liable for A.’s injuries.

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