Voluntary Practice Designation Limits District’s Negligence

Oct 12, 2007

A California state appeals court has affirmed the ruling of a trial court that a school district was not negligent when a member of the Santa Fe High School cross-country team caused an accident while running with other team members in a voluntary practice.
The court held specifically that “because this practice was not school-sponsored, (state law) immunizes the district from liability.”
The incident occurred on September 3, 2003. Plaintiff Daniel Becker was riding a motorcycle, which collided with Russell Rayne Crick, a 15-year-old member of the Santa Fe cross country team. Crick and two other boys from the team were running across a busy street when the accident occurred. The Plaintiff suffered a shoulder injury as a result of the accident.
He then sued Crick and the Whittier Union High School District for negligence. While Crick ultimately settled with the plaintiff, the school district resisted, leading to a trial.
The plaintiff’s principal argument was that cross country coach Hector Vasquez failed to adequately supervise the runners, and that the lack of supervision was a substantial cause of the accident.
The jury ultimately concluded that the practice was unscheduled, and thus the school district was not liable. The plaintiff appealed.
The appeals court found that “the evidence supports the jury’s implied finding that the run was unscheduled. Coach Vasquez testified that he did not schedule a practice because he was busy preparing for fall classes and attending meetings.
The appeals court found a key passage in state law (Education Code section 44808), which elaborated on when a district might be responsible or in any way liable for the conduct or safety of any pupil of the public schools. Responsibility can be triggered, for example, if the district has provided transportation.
The court went on to note that “there is substantial evidence in this case to support the conclusion the students elected to run even though there was no practice scheduled that day; attendance was not required and credit was not given for this activity. Because this practice was not school-sponsored, section 44808 immunizes the district from liability.”
“In this case there was no evidence that Coach Vasquez knew or had reason to know Crick, or any other member of the cross-country team, had a propensity for reckless behavior while running on city streets. Vasquez educated the students about safe conduct for off-campus runs. Vasquez testified that he was confident that the runners would obey the rules of the road. Crick testified that Vasquez specifically told the students to use crosswalks when crossing major streets. Crick also testified that when a coach was present on practice runs, the runners did not cross the street midblock. Because Vasquez did not know and could not reasonably have known that Crick or any other student would cross the street midblock during off-campus training runs, respondent owed no duty to appellant.”
Daniel Becker v. Whittier Union High School District; Ct.App.Cal.; B1914772007; Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 7059; 8/30/07
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Lund & Caplan and Richard A. Caplan. (for defendant) Lynberg & Watkins, Ric C. Ottaiano and Courtney L. Hylton.


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