Christian School Risk and Liability: A Real-World Lesson
There’s a lot to guard against when it comes to Christian school risk and liability. From the playground to the classroom to the ride to and from school, school-aged children face the risk of injury and illness daily. One of the highest priorities for school administrators is the safety and security of students, and while private schools are often run much differently than public schools, they’re both subject to the same laws and safety regulations.
Let’s take a look at a recent case where a state Supreme Court has upheld damages in a negligence case involving risk exposures related to school trips and the duty of schools to report those risks. During the height of the Zika virus scare we covered the danger of Zika to churches and some of the related issues surrounding mission travel liability and travel protection.
In that article we cited a $42 million dollar settlement that was issued against a private secondary school after a student contracted an illness from a tick bite during a school-sponsored trip to China. Before the tragic trip in question, the student’s parents signed a broadly-worded liability waiver that would release the school from “any and all claims.”
If you missed that article, here’s a recap of where things went wrong: as part of the month-long international program trip, students were scheduled to visit “Mount Pan” (Mount Panshan) as part of a cultural tour of the city of Tianjin. During the trip to Mount Pan the students hiked through mountainous, forested areas. Prior to the event, the students were not warned they would be hiking through a forest, so they were not properly dressed or prepared for a serious outdoor excursion. Many students were dressed in sandals, shorts, and T-shirts.
No one advised the students to apply bug spray before traveling up the mountain. After reaching the top of the mountain, the student was allowed to hike back down the mountain, accompanied by two or three other students and no chaperone. The teachers, chaperones, and the majority of other students rode cable cars back to the bottom of the mountain. During the hike back down, the small group became lost and ventured off the trail – navigating through brush and trees before reuniting with the group.
After the trip to Mount Panshan, the student noticed insect bites and welts, but felt fine other than some itching. Ten days later she woke up with flu-like symptoms and disorientation. She was taken to the hospital where it became apparent she had been bitten by a tick. The student became severely ill and was air-lifted to a U.S.-based hospital for specialized treatment. While she did recover, she was left with permanent paralysis and cognitive issues due to tick-borne encephalitis.
The school attempted to avoid liability due to the fact that the parents had signed a liability waiver, yet the courts ruled that it was too broad in its wording. Here, an average person would not realize the release would free the school of liability for its careless acts. The school knew all the details of the trip and the specifics of associated excursions, but failed to provide them to students and parents, preventing them from taking appropriate precautions.
The ruling and damages were appealed by the school to the state’s Supreme Court. Now a ruling has been issued that supports the awarding of the full amount of damages to the student. Both the state’s Second Circuit Court of Appeals and the state’s Supreme Court decided there was sufficient evidence presented to find that the student’s illness was foreseeable. This is in part because school administrator’s viewed the CDC’s page on traveling to China and the risk of tick-borne illness while in the country. The negligence occurred because school administrators did not notify students or parents of the risk even though they knew about it.
Even though the state in question does not have a public policy that requires schools to warn or protect students from the risk of insect-related illness, schools are generally expected to protect students from danger when they are in the care of the school or its representatives.
The case is now with the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
About Christian School Risk and Liability: What You Should Consider
Here are some great risk-management reminders for administrators of Christian schools and colleges:
- Risk can be hard to spot.
- Risk is everywhere, in all areas of operations.
- Risk should be verified using multiple methods.
- Risk can be mitigated through education.
- Risk exposure is the first step in mitigation; beware exposure through litigation.
Forward-thinking administrators of Christian schools will keep the above tips in mind as they look to mitigate Christian school risk and liability, giving their schools a better chance of staying ahead of risk and continuing in the mission to protect and educate young minds while furthering the Kingdom.
We’ll keep an eye out for developments in this particular case as it progresses and report back with any new information about Christian school risk and liability that could further affect California Christian schools and colleges.
Have questions about your Christian school and establishing a risk-management team? We’re all ears. Just drop us a line and we’ll reach out to help.
Does your Christian school or college have a risk-management team? Has it helped your school avoid problems and stay effective? Let us know about your experiences with Christian school risk and liability in the comments below.
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