Monday, December 16, 2002
Long Beach Unified School District Immune From Suit in Drowning Death at Summer Camp, Appeals Court Rules
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Long Beach Unified School District bears no liability for the death of a student who drowned while attending a summer camp with which the district is associated, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled Friday.
The district is immune in the August 2000 death of Thomas Ramirez, who was 15 when he died on a five-day backpacking trip to a remote area of the Sequoia National Forest, Justice Richard Aldrich wrote in an unpublished opinion for Div. Three. The death did not occur on school property, Aldrich explained, concluding that none of the statutory exceptions to the immunity of school officials for off-campus occurrences apply.
The backpacking trip was part of the two-week R.M. Pyles Camp, a program for low-income youth that is designed to develop leadership skills. Attorneys for the family contended that the district is liable because it recruited Thomas for the camp, provided him and his parents with the forms that had to be filled out in order for him to participate, promoted the program, hosted meetings with parents, and assured the boy’s mother that the camp was safe.
The district had no basis for giving that assurance, the complaint alleged, and never told the parents that the camp was understaffed, the counselors were not trained as lifeguards, there were no life jackets or similar safety devices available, and the location where the children were allowed to swim was an hour away from the nearest medical facility.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Tracy Moreno sustained the district’s demurrer, and Aldrich said the trial judge was correct.
The justice explained that under Education Code Sec. 44808, a school district can be held liable for an injury sustained away from its premises only if it provided transportation to the activity from and to the school premises, sponsored the activity, “has otherwise specifically assumed such responsibility or liability or has failed to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances.”
In addition, the injury must occur when the student “is or should be under the immediate and direct supervision of an employee of such district.”
The camp was not a school-sponsored activity, Aldrich reasoned, because the school neither required attendance nor gave credit to its participants. And while the district transported the boy from his home to the school, it did not provide transportation from the school to the camp, the justice said.
Nor, he went on to say, did the district give the family any reason to expect that the district or any of its employees would be supervising Thomas at the camp or assuming responsibility for his safety. The school district’s participation in recruitment, Aldrich said, did not constitute an assumption of responsibility for its activities.
“School districts are not responsible for the activities of organizations, such as scouts, and the Camp, unless they are supervised or controlled by the school districts,” the justice said.
Aldrich also rejected the theory that the camp and the school district were engaged in a joint venture or joint adventure for which both could be held liable. There cannot be a joint venture or joint adventure without joint control, the justice declared.
The Ramirez family was represented by Federico C. Sayre and Miguel G. Caballero of the Law Offices of Sayre & Chavez. The district’s attorneys were Allen L. Thomas and Lori D. Barcelona of the Thomas Law Firm.
The case is Ramirez v. Long Beach Unified School District, B153691.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company