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Recent Court Decision Defines the Duty of Care for School Districts

February 6, 2012

The complexity of a school’s duty of care for its students was recently illustrated, under tragic circumstances, in a recent New York Supreme Court appellate decision. In Martinez v. City of New York, 935 N.Y.S.2d 45, the court considered whether the school had breached its duty of care when it released an asthmatic student to his mother.

The 11 year-old student had reported to the school nurse complaining of coughing and wheezing, explaining to the nurse that his inhaler of medication was empty. The student’s parents were notified and the mother arrived at the school before the school district had contacted emergency personnel. The student was released to his mother by the school, with the nurse informing the mother that if she did not have any medication with her that she should take her son to the emergency room. The mother indicated that she did not consider the situation to be an emergency and took her son home, where he had a cardiac arrest upon arriving at home and later died after being transported to the hospital.

The student’s estate brought an action against the school district alleging a breach of care on the part of the school district. In denying the estate’s claim, the court noted that the school’s duty of care is generally coextensive with its physical custody and control of the student. However, this duty of care can continue even after physical custody is relinquished if it is “without further supervision into a foreseeably hazardous setting it had a hand in creating.”

In this instance, the court concluded that the school, in releasing the student to his mother, had released the student into a “safe spot,” noting that the student’s mother was perfectly free to resume control over his protection and, in fact, had done so by assuming physical custody, removing him from school grounds, and deciding the appropriate measure of care. While this tragic event may have been preventable, the school district fully complied with its responsibilities to care for the student.

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