Red Lake Nation News - Babaamaajimowinan (Telling of news in different places)

By Terry Morrow

Minnesota Supreme Court rules school may be liable after student-driver crashes driving to postseason meet


December 6, 2018

On November 21, 2018, the Minnesota Supreme Court, in reversing the appellate court, ruled in Fenrich v. The Blake School that a school could be held liable after a student driving a personal vehicle to a postseason weekend athletic meet caused a fatal accident. The Court of Appeals had granted summary judgment for The Blake School, determining no issues of material fact existed and the school was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

In the Fenrich case, a 16-year-old high-school student drove some of his cross-country teammates and a volunteer coach to an invitational meet after the regular season. During the 200-mile drive in which the student-driver followed the assistant coach’s vehicle, the student-driver “was probably distracted” by his cell phone, according to the volunteer coach (who was in the rear seat and using his own phone). The student-driver’s three passengers, including the volunteer coach, were under the age of 20, in violation of Minnesota law restricting the number of passengers under age 20 that the student-driver could transport. The vehicle swerved across the highway’s center line and struck the plaintiff’s vehicle, killing the driver and severely injuring the passenger.

Generally, a school does not owe a duty of care to a member of the general public when harm is caused by a third party’s conduct. Two exceptions to this general rule exist: (1) when a special relationship exists between the victim and the school and the harm is foreseeable; or (2) when the school’s own conduct creates a foreseeable risk of injury to a foreseeable plaintiff. Rejecting the lower courts’ decisions, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that a jury could determine that the fatal accident was foreseeable.

The school’s conduct was the first matter to be addressed. The court identified factors that could lead a jury to decide that the school engaged in active misfeasance (as opposed to passive inactivity, which would not give rise to a duty of care to the public when harmed by a third person). According to the court, the school assumed supervision and control over the trip. The meet was posted on the team website, the head coach strongly encouraged the team members to participate in the meet, the assistant coach paid the registration fee and coordinated transportation and lodging, and the coaches were active in preparation for the meet. In addition, no safety instructions regarding the drive were provided to the volunteer coach or the student-driver.

The Fenrich court turned its attention to the question of whether a foreseeable risk to a foreseeable plaintiff had been created. The court wrote that, in this case, “whether the student-driver’s driving created an objectively reasonable expectation of danger to the public is at least ‘a close call.’”

On the one hand, the driver was licensed, his parents were “very comfortable” with his driving, he was following the assistant coach’s vehicle, and it was daylight. On the other hand, (1) the driver had been licensed for less than six months; (2) he had too many passengers under age 20; (3) he received no safety instructions; (4) the volunteer coach was not given safety instructions; and (5) the driver and the volunteer coach were apparently distracted. The possibility “that teen drivers may become distracted by other teens and electronics is not in any way remote or attenuated,” the court observed. Under these circumstances, a jury could conclude that it was foreseeable “that a teenage driver on a long trip, in a car with three other teenagers, could get distracted and collide with another driver.”

Two dissenting justices expressed their concern that the Fenrich decision “significantly expanded the potential liability of schools by holding that [the Blake school] is potentially liable to the general public for the negligence of a student who, at the suggestion of his parents and with their express written consent, drove his family’s personal vehicle to a post-season weekend athletic event.” The dissent stated, “now a school must consider whether it has a duty to remote individuals based on actions taken by students in almost any context. All extracurricular, and co-curricular, activities, are now guaranteed a gimlet-eyed review by the school’s lawyers.”

Following the Fenrich decision, the dissent concluded, “the response from schools will necessarily be to ratchet back on school activities and relationships in order to limit financial exposure. While schools can require parents to sign releases of liability for the schools’ students, as the school did here in connection with cross-country events during the official season, it is obviously not possible for schools to obtain releases of liability from individual members of the public.” The majority opinion states, “we announce no new rule of law today,” but the dissenting opinion obviously disagreed.

MSBA continues to recommend that school districts provide transportation for school-sponsored activities conducted away from school property. If parents do not want their students to take advantage of that transportation, we recommend getting that decision in writing with a parent’s signature. The Fenrich case involves a situation where the school was involved in planning the trip to the activity held at a distance from the school and encouraged members of an extracurricular team to attend, but the school did not sponsor the activity.

MSBA would recommend that school districts not get involved in planning trips that are not sponsored by the school district.


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