Wednesday, March 24, 2010
C.A: School System Not Liable for Student’s Death on Field Trip
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The Fourth District Court of Appeal yesterday ruled that a county office of education could not be held liable for the death of a sixth grade student during a 2006 field trip to an outdoor school facility owned and operated by the district.
Div. One explained that Education Code Sec. 35330 provided the San Diego County Office of Education with immunity from a negligence action filed by the parents of Virginia Sanchez.
Virginia was a student at McCabe Elementary School, within the McCabe Union School District, and attended a facility known as Camp Fox during a five-day field trip with various classmates and teachers from her school.
Camp Fox, located at the base of Palomar Mountain, was owned and operated by the Office of Education and provided science-related programs to student attendees.
While at Camp Fox, Virginia suffered an asthma coronary attack. Camp counselors gave the girl her asthma inhaler and performed CPR until paramedics arrived, but she died while being transported to the hospital.
Virginia’s parents filed suit against the Office of Education, alleging that it had failed to provide adequate medical staffing at Camp Fox and negligently misrepresented the level of medical staffing provided at the facility.
The Office of Education moved for summary judgment, asserting immunity under Sec. 35330, and San Diego Superior Court Judge Judith F. Hayes granted the motion.
Sec. 35330(a) provides that the governing board of a school district or the county superintendent of schools of a county may “[c]onduct field trips or excursions in connection with courses of instruction or school-related social, educational, cultural, athletic, or school band activities to and from places in the state.”
Under subdivision (d) of the statute, “[a]ll persons making the field trip or excursion shall be deemed to have waived all claims against the district, a charter school, or the State of California for injury, accident, illness, or death occurring during or by reason of the field trip or excursion.”
Writing for the appellate court, Justice Alex C. McDonald noted that courts have construed the “deemed to have waived” language contained in subdivision (d) as creating a “broad immunity” as part of the scheme designed to encourage the use of field trips as part of enhancing the educational process.
While the parties agreed that this was the overarching legislative intent behind the statute, Virginia’s parents insisted that subdivision (d) limits its protection to the district in which the injured child was enrolled and has no application to any other school district whose negligence may have contributed to the harm, because the remaining provisions of Sec. 35330 only address the rights and duties of the district providing the trip.
McDonald reasoned that the “ordinary import of the language employed in subdivision (d) is to refer to the school district described in subdivision (a),” which would be the district which “conduct[ed]” the trip or excursion.
Based on “the standard dictionary definition of the verb ‘conduct,’ ” McDonald posited that the term “includes directing or taking part in the operation or management of the field trip.”
Because under the statute the Office of Education qualified as a school district which owned, operated and provided the staff for Camp Fox, McDonald concluded that there was no triable issue of fact that the agency played a sufficiently significant role in “conduct[ing]” the field trip in which Virginia took part in order to satisfy the criterion for immunity under subdivision (d).
The fact that some provisions of Sec. 35330 may be applicable solely to the district in which the injured student was enrolled did not mean that all of the statute’s provisions would only be applicable to that district, the jurist added.
If such a distinction were made, McDonald posited, a school district which cooperates with the district in which a student is enrolled would have to obtain contractual indemnity from the student’s home district as a condition to allowing the other district to use its facilities or personnel for a field trip.
“This would impose a Hobson’s choice for the home district: either abandon the opportunity to provide its students with the unique learning opportunities provided by field trips utilizing the cooperating district’s facilities, or effectively forfeit the immunity conferred on the home district by section 35330,” he said. “We conclude that result would frustrate the proposes and policies section 35330 sought to embody, and therefore we are not persuaded by [the Sanchezes’] interpretation of section 35330.”
Presiding Justice Judith McConnell and Justice Cynthia Aaron joined McDonald in his decision.
The case is Sanchez v. San Diego County Office of Education, D054560.
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