Caution: Supervision Required

by

Patterson v. Sacramento City Unified School District (California)
(Truck Driver Student Injured Unloading Bleachers During a Community Service Project; School Owed a Duty to Supervise; Activity Not Inherently Dangerous and Primary Assumption of Risk Doctrine Did Not Apply)

The plaintiff was an adult truck driver training course student. He brought a negligent supervision action against a school district after he was injured while loading bleachers onto a flat-bed trailer as part of an off-campus community service project. The defendant school district filed a motion for summary judgment, which was eventually granted by the trial court. The court ruled, in part, that the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the primary assumption of the risk doctrine in that he voluntarily assumed the risks inherent in the activity and the defendant did nothing to increase those risks. The plaintiff appealed.

On appeal the court held that the community service project was a “school sponsored activity” for purposes of determination of whether the district had a duty of care, and that the plaintiff student should have been under the immediate and direct supervision of a school district employee. The court also ultimately ruled that the primary assumption of the risk doctrine, which could bar liability altogether under California law, did not apply under the circumstances.

The court recounted the history of primary assumption of the risk, noting its typical application in the sports and recreation context. However, the court acknowledged that the doctrine has been expanded to encompass dangerous activities in other contexts (including employment contexts) where the activity is inherently dangerous. In the end, the court determined that loading a flat bed trailer is not an inherently dangerous activity. As such, the plaintiff’s claim was not barred as a matter of law. The court also touched upon the fact that even if the doctrine had applied, there was evidence to potentially establish that the instructors had acted recklessly in failing to supervise the activity, thereby increasing the risk of injury. As such, there would have been the possibility of liability notwithstanding the doctrine’s application.

As a matter of policy, the court did “not want truck driver training instructors to send inexperienced students out to load flat bed trailers without instruction and supervision.” Imposing a duty of care upon the instructors to properly supervise the activity would not “chill vigorous participation.” The lower court’s ruling was reversed and the case was remanded for trial.

NOTE: The fact that this case involved a student-instructor relationship probably increased the desire tof the court o protect the injured party.  Since the early 1990s, the court have continued to expand the application of the primary assumption of the risk doctrine.  It originally developed in the context of competitive sports, with courts often attempting to analyze whether or not an activity could be technically defined as a “sport.”  The courts continued to expand the doctrine’s applications such that it was argued and applied in virtually every context in which someone was doing something that was dangerous and risky.  Although there are some unique characteristics in this case, the court seems to be recognizing the need to limit the application of primary assumption of the risk to those activities that clearly involve inherent and avoidable risks.  In this instance, the court believed that done properly and supervised properly, unloading a truck should not be inherently dangerous.

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