B.C.’s highest court delivered a strong message this week to school districts about their liability when students are injured on school grounds.
The Court of Appeal upheld a lower court ruling that found the Surrey school district 75 per cent responsible for an accident in 2008 that left a 12-year-old boy seriously injured after he fell from the roof of Peace Arch elementary school.
The student, Owen Paquette, was found to be only 25 per cent responsible for his injuries.
In assigning blame, the B.C. Supreme Court said the district was negligent for failing to trim or remove a tree that students had climbed previously to get onto the school roof.
“I conclude it was foreseeable that trees close to the school might be used to access the roof,” Justice Neena Sharma wrote in a January decision. “It is simple common sense that if a child can get onto the roof, it is reasonably foreseeable that the child might fall off that roof and get badly injured.”
The three appeal court justices agreed and in a judgment released this week said the Owen’s error “was precisely the type of misjudgment to be expected of a boy this age.”
Education consultant Geoff Johnson, a former B.C. school superintendent, said the ruling should serve as a wake-up call for district officials.
It “should cause those responsible to remind P.E. teachers, I.E. (industrial arts) teachers, maintenance people, principals, etc. to take nothing for granted when it comes to student safety,” he told me in an email.
“The problem is that you can’t protect 500,000 kids from themselves and 44,000 teachers can’t watch everything the kids do.”
In an op-ed to be published Wednesday in the Victoria Times Colonist, Johnson noted several court cases that have similarly assigned blame to school districts.
“Fortunately for teachers, who are exposed to the results of student accidents much of the time, Section 94 of The School Act provides some protection against actions for damages unless the employee has been guilty of dishonesty, gross negligence or malicious or willful misconduct,” he writes.
“In an increasingly litigious age, teaching, much less running a school system, has become a risky business.”
A story in the Globe and Mail says Owen has had a number of operations since the accident, and the amount of compensation to be paid has yet to be determined.
The tree has been cut down, the story says.
The B.C. Court of Appeal issued a similar judgment in 2011 against the Chilliwack school district after a 13-year-old student was hit in the face with a field hockey stick during a physical education class in 1998. Devon Hussack was awarded $1.1 million in compensation.
School districts are insured through the B.C. Schools Protection Program