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Court Of Appeals Reviews “Orbit” Of School Authority Over Off-School Premises Student Assault

December 6, 2012 • Posted By Joseph A. French • Complex Litigation

In a recent October 2012 decision, the Court of Appeals refused to allow an expansion of a school’s potential liability for off-school premises incidents involving pupils from the school.  See Stephenson, et al. v. The City of New York, (2012).

On the day in question, two blocks away from the school and before school began, defendant assaulted plaintiff.  Both had been involved in an in-school fight two days earlier while they changing classes.  That incident resulted in an in-school suspension for both.  The boys were apparently separated, they were dismissed at different times and neither saw or encountered the other at school during school hours before the incident at issue.  It was alleged, however, that the assailant saw plaintiff after school hours but on school grounds the day before the subject incident, and plaintiff was allegedly threatened at this time.

Plaintiff claimed school officials failed to ensure his safety when he was assaulted.  (The City was sanctioned by the trial court for not producing records as demanded regarding potential notice).  In its summary judgment motion, the City argued it owed no duty to plaintiff for an off-premises, pre-school hours’ incident.  Upon appeal, and in a 3-2 decision, the Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s decision for plaintiff.

The Court of Appeals noted that it is well settled that a “school owes a common-law duty to adequately supervise its students”, due to its “physical custody of them.”  The school is exercising physical custody and control over its students, thereby taking “the place of parents and guardians.”

“Schools are not, however, insurers of students’ safety and ‘cannot be reasonably expected to continuously supervise and control all movements of students’, therefore, schools are not be held liable” “for every thoughtless or careless act by which one pupil may injure another.”  “Once the child has passed beyond the school’s “orbit of authority” and to the parent who reassumes control over the child’s protection, the “school’s custodial duty also ceases”.”

In Stephenson, the Court refused to expand the school’s “orbit of authority”.  The school adequately supervised the plaintiff after the first incident, and adequately addressed the first in-school altercation with punishment.  Regarding the alleged after-hours threat, the Court took a cautious but prudent step back and found the school had no “statutory duty” to inform parents about “generalized threats”.  Thus, the Court found for the City because “no common law duty to notify parents about threatened harm posed by a third party” because plaintiff was not threatened with conduct where the harm itself “would not occur while the Child was in [the] custody and control of [the] school officials.”  We believe the refusal to expand the school’s “orbit of authority” was proper in this case, and its analysis illuminating as to when actions or incidents can invoke the school’s common-law duty to a student.