Washington State Appeals Court Affirms Ruling that School District Fulfilled Its Duty in Concussion Case

Jan 29, 2021

An appeals court in the state of Washington has affirmed a lower court’s ruling that a school district and its employees did not breach their duty of care after a student suffered head injuries, including a concussion, while riding on an amusement park ride on a school field trip.

In sum, the district discharged its duty when the parent was informed of the head injury, according to the court.

In 2014, Haley Anderson was a student at Snohomish High School in the Snohomish School District No. 201. On April 8 of that year, she went on a band-sponsored field trip to Disneyland.

Along with her boyfriend at the time, Mitchell Gibbs, the two got on the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland between 1:30 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. Gibbs testified that he sat in front of Haley during the ride. After the two got off the ride, Gibbs testified that Haley told him she hit her head and did not feel well. As a result, they sat down, and Gibbs went to get Haley something to drink. When Gibbs returned, he asked Haley if she was feeling better. He testified that Haley said he was and the two went to meet their friends at the Haunted Mansion ride. He testified that they also went on some nighttime rides after dinner, including the Matterhorn again.

However, when they stopped at a chaperone station at 10:30 p.m., he stated that Haley fell asleep and he had trouble waking her up. Once he woke her up, he carried her back to the hotel and told another student to tell Wendy Nelson, a parent volunteer on the trip, about Haley hitting her head. Nelson served as the trip coordinator. Nelson recommended she take pain medication, call her parents, and that she would check on her in the morning. Just after midnight, Haley texted her father. But neither parent made any effort to contact any of the adults on the trip, according to the court.

Haley testified that the morning of April 9, she had a headache. While she was eating breakfast that morning, she recalled Nelson asking her how her head was. She told Nelson that she was fine. She did not recall telling Nelson anything else. Throughout the remainder of the trip, Haley continued to go on rides at amusement parks and experienced symptoms like headaches and nausea.

Particularly, on April 12, she rode a rollercoaster at SeaWorld called Manta. She testified that, after the ride, her head was spinning and hurt worse than it had on the previous days. She also stated that she could not think straight and felt nauseous. However, she concedes that she did not report any symptoms she experienced after April 8 to Nelson or her assigned chaperones. She explained “that because Nelson told her she did not have a concussion, she was under the impression that she had only a headache.”

The band flew home on April 13. When Haley arrived at home, she told her parents that she did not feel well. The next morning, she had a headache and felt dizzy, and she told her mother that she still did not feel well. Jodie took Haley to the Everett Clinic that same day, where she was diagnosed with a concussion.

Haley continued to experience symptoms and did not return to school for most of the remainder of the year. In September 2015, Dr. Stephen Glass, a child neurologist, opined that Haley suffered a concussion after hitting her head on the between April 8 and April 13. Because she “was not properly treated for the concussion, he concluded that this second impact was causing her persistent symptoms and ongoing impairment.”

In May 2016, the Andersons sued Snohomish School District No. 201 alleged that while acting as agents for the District, Wilson and Nelson failed to provide Haley reasonable and necessary medical care after her head injury. Although Nelson was not a District employee, the District admitted that she was its agent and was acting under the scope of her agency on the trip.

The District moved for summary judgment, claiming that it implemented “reasonable measures for students to report injuries during the trip, but that Haley did not use them. Instead, it pointed out, she failed to disclose any other symptoms beyond her initial headache until after the trip. The Andersons countered that the injuries were foreseeable.

The District has student athletes, and their parents sign a waiver regarding the risks and symptoms of a concussion. It directs parents to seek medical attention right away if their child reports any concussion symptoms, or if they notice any concussion symptoms in their child.

The Andersons argued that even if Jodie and Dean acted wrongfully in not doing more after learning Haley hit her head, the District necessarily acted wrongfully based on the custodial relationship it had with her.

The court disagreed, concluding that Wilson and Nelson did enough.

The Andersons appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in granting the summary judgment motion because there was a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the District breached its duty of care to Haley. “Specifically, the Andersons assert that the trial court failed to review the facts regarding its duty.”

The court noted that to prevail “in their negligence suit, the Andersons must show (1) the existence of a duty to the plaintiff, (2) a breach of that duty, (3) a resulting injury, and (4) the breach as the proximate cause of the injury. N.L. v. Bethel Sch. Dist., 186 Wn.2d 422, 429, 378 P.3d 162. The parties agree that the district owed a duty to Haley. What they disagree on is whether the evidence showed a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the District breached that duty.”

The issue “is whether the District exercised reasonable care in response to what it was told by and about Haley on April 8 and the morning of April 9. The form does not specifically address the protocol for handling student injuries,”

The plaintiffs argued on appeal that “because the District knew that every head injury to a student is serious, it also knew that continued activity after a head injury could cause additional serious injury. Last, they cite a declaration by their expert Dr. Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center.”

Stephens opined that “the District, by and through its agents, violated its own standard of care by failing to provide sufficient information to adult volunteers on the trip as to how to properly respond to a student injury, specifically, a head injury. The District was aware, prior to the trip, [of] the potential severity of head injuries and that students underreport those injuries.”

The appeals court did not budge, writing that “the District discharged its duty when Nelson instructed Haley to inform her parents, Haley then sent a text message to her parents about hitting her head, and Haley communicated with her parents the morning of April 9.

“… School districts have a duty to exercise the care that an ordinarily responsible and prudent person would exercise under the same or similar circumstances. N.L., 186 Wn.2d at 430. No authority has been advanced to suggest that in a nonemergency situation when a child is physically in the care of the school district this duty precludes the district from notifying parents and providing them the opportunity to exercise decision-making authority. Nor has any authority been advanced to suggest that this duty is greater than the duty of the parents in similar circumstances.”

Haley A. Anderson et al. v. Snohomish School District No. 201 et al.; Ct. App. Wash.; No. 80218-6-I (consolidated with No. 8030-7-I ); 8/24/20