By John T. Wendt
The Blake School is a private high school in Minneapolis. In 2011, the high school sponsored a cross country team that participated in interscholastic meets governed by the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL). The high school employed a head coach and a part-time assistant coach for the cross country team. One week after the end of the MSHSL cross country season, Nike Inc. hosted the Nike Cross Nationals Heartland Regional cross-country meet in Sioux Falls, S.D. Several weeks before the Nike meet, the head coach sent an e-mail message to all team members and their parents, stating that “all varsity and top JV runners are encouraged to participate” in the Nike meet.
Because the Nike meet was to occur after the MSHSL season, the school’s coaches determined that team members could not participate in the Nike meet on behalf of the school. Team members would be responsible for their own transportation and lodging. A former team member, who had graduated from the school one and one-half years earlier and sometimes assisted on a volunteer basis, was available to lead “captains’ practices” during the week between the end of the MSHSL season and the Nike meet. During that week, the assistant coach stopped by one of the captains’ practices to talk to team members to “make sure that they talked to their parents about the lodging and transportation.” Some team members said that they would like to ride to the Nike meet in the assistant coach’s vehicle.
T.M., a member of the team volunteered to drive to the meet with other members of the team in his family car. T.M.’s parents felt comfortable with his driving skills and supported the idea as long as there was a “caravan” with the assistant coach’s car in clear view. On the morning of Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011 the caravan started with the assistant coach in his personal vehicle with some team members.
T.M. drove his family’s vehicle, in which two team members and the volunteer coach were passengers. Later that day T.M. lost control of his vehicle, crossed over the center line, and collided with a vehicle in which JeanAnn Fenrich and her husband, Gary Fenrich, were traveling in the opposite direction. JeanAnn was injured, and Gary was killed. In November 2014, JeanAnn Fenrich commenced this action. The complaint named the school, the head coach, the assistant coach, and the volunteer coach as defendants.
Fenrich alleged that the defendants were negligent “by having [T.M.] drive himself [and others] to the Nike meet” and “by failing to provide adequate supervision while [T.M.] drove himself [and others] to the Nike meet.” She alleged that the school was liable for its own negligence and is vicariously liable for the negligence of its agents. She sought damages for her husband’s death and for her own injuries. The complaint acknowledged that Fenrich previously entered into a settlement agreement with T.M. The district court resolved Fenrich’s claims at various stages of pre-trial proceedings. In August 2016, the district court ruled on a motion for summary judgment brought by the school and the volunteer coach.
The district court essentially granted the motion in part by stating that the school did not have a duty “to protect third-party non-students from injury caused by the conduct of its students who are driving to a school-sponsored activity” but merely a duty “to protect its students from injury resulting from conduct of other students.” But the district court denied the motion in part with respect to the vicarious-liability claim on the ground that Fenrich presented sufficient evidence to allow a reasonable juror to find that T.M. “was acting as an agent of the school” or of the volunteer coach.
The issue presented to the court was whether the school assumed a duty of reasonable care to Fenrich by agreeing that one of its students would drive himself and other students to an out-of-town, extra-curricular activity in his family’s vehicle?
The district court found that a school may owe a duty of reasonable care to its students but that, as a matter of law, a school never owes a duty of reasonable care to the general public. However, the Minnesota Court of Appeals found that contrary to the district court’s reasoning and the school’s argument, the general principles of law discussed above do not foreclose the possibility that a school might owe a duty of reasonable care to persons other than its students. A school may owe a duty of reasonable care to members of the general public if the school’s “own conduct creates a foreseeable risk of injury to a foreseeable plaintiff.”
However, in this particular case, the summary-judgment record did not contain evidence that is capable of proving that the probability that T.M. would cause an automobile accident was high enough to make such an accident foreseeable. The Court of Appeals noted that while T.M. was young, he was licensed to drive and, thus, was permitted by law to drive from the Twin Cities to Sioux Falls. In addition, his mother had informed the school’s coaches that there were no restrictions on his license that prevented him from carrying more than one unrelated passenger. Fenrich offered no evidence that T.M. had driven carelessly in the past or otherwise was unlikely to drive safely, and there is no evidence that the school’s coaches were aware of any such tendencies. The only evidence in the record concerning T.M.’s driving abilities is his mother’s e-mail message to the assistant coach, which states that she and T.M.’s father—two persons likely to have relevant, first-hand knowledge and a strong interest in a safe voyage—were “very comfortable with [his] driving skills.”
The Minnesota Court of Appeals noted that the facts are similar to the facts of Gylten v. Swalboski, 246 F.3d 1139 (8th Cir. 2001) in which a teenage student-driver caused an accident that injured a member of the general public while driving to an extra-curricular activity. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit concluded that the school did not owe a duty of reasonable care to the general public because the plaintiffs introduced “no evidence that [the] school district knew or should have known that [the student-driver] was anything but an average licensed driver who had been granted parental permission to drive his car to school,” no evidence that the student had driven “in an unsafe manner” before the accident, and no evidence that the school had been put on notice that he was a careless driver. Id. at 1144.
In this case the Minnesota Court of Appeals held that because the risk of an automobile accident was not foreseeable, the school did not assume a duty of reasonable care to the general public by agreeing that one of its students would drive himself and other students to an out-of-town, extra-curricular activity in his family’s vehicle.
JeanAnn Fenrich, individually, and as trustee for the heirs of Gary Fenrich, Appellant, vs. The Blake School, et al., Respondents Date: September 5, 2017, Docket Number: A17-0063
Full Decision is available at: http://www.mncourts.gov/mncourtsgov/media/Appellate/Court of Appeals/Holiday Opinions/Opa170063-090517.pdf
John T. Wendt serves as a member of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Lausanne, Switzerland), the American Arbitration Association, the Special AAA Panel for United States Olympic Committee Disputes, the Ladies Professional Golf Association Special Anti-Doping Arbitration Panel, and the World Triathlon Union Arbitration Panel. He has published extensively in the field of sports law, teaches Sports Law, and serves as a Professor Emeritus of Ethics and Business Law Department in the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas. He holds a Master of Arts and Bachelor of Arts, Summa Cum Laude from the University of Minnesota and a Juris Doctorate from William Mitchell College of Law. He has been inducted into the University of Minnesota Aquatics Hall of Fame and the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts Alumni of Notable Achievement. He can be reached at email@example.com