Failure to Warn – Supreme Court Find Triable Issue Regarding School District’s Breach of Duty to Deceased Youth (WY)


Amos v. Lincoln County School District No. 2 (Wyoming)

A five-year-old boy was attending a basketball game at a school that had been converted to a community center.  He was playing with other children on a stage near the basketball court when a lunchroom bench tipped over and fell on top of him, causing a basal skull fracture and killing him instantly.  The lunchroom bench had been removed from the gymnasium wall and had been placed against the wall in a storage room adjacent to the stage.  A year later, the boy’s personal representative filed a wrongful death action against the school district, along with the town and county where the facility was located.

The county filed an “affidavit of noninvolvement” with the trial court in lieu of an answer.  In response, the trial court entered an order dismissing the county from the action without prejudice.  The court explained that it found that “there [were] not enough facts to show that [the county was] responsible but if facts come forward or are discovered that show that [the county was] responsible, either directly or indirectly, [the county] shall be reinstated as a Defendant.”

The school district filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that it had turned over possession and maintenance of the building to the community group such that it did not owe the plaintiff a duty of care and was, therefore, entitled to judgment as a matter of law.  The trial court denied the school district’s motion, holding: “Viewing these basic facts in a light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the School District, as the owner, is in the same position as a landlord is to its tenants and their invitees. As such, it owed all persons entering the building as invitees the duty of reasonable and ordinary care under the circumstances.”  Notwithstanding the ruling, the trial court did express concern that the facts may not ultimately establish a breach of the school district’s duty or that the district’s actions were the proximate cause of the incident.

The school district thereafter filed a renewed summary judgment motion, arguing that it did not breach its duty of care and that its actions were not the proximate cause of the incident.  The court granted the second motion, finding that “the actions and conduct [of the School District] were not a direct, proximate cause of the accident.”  Plaintiff appealed.  On appeal, the Supreme Court of Wyoming noted that:

“[T]he district court found that the School District owed Plaintiff a duty of reasonable care, but it concluded based on the undisputed facts and as a matter of law that the School District had not breached that duty and that the School District’s conduct was not a proximate cause of Plaintiff’s injuries. The district court’s decision was based on its conclusion that if there were negligence in this case it was in the leaning of the lunchroom bench unsecured against a wall and its finding that the undisputed facts established that no one from the School District placed the bench and the School District had no knowledge that the bench had been so placed.”

Plaintiff argued “that regardless of who mishandled the bench, it remain[ed] a jury question whether the School District breached its duty of reasonable care by failing to warn the Community Group of the dangers of mishandling the lunchroom benches and tables and by failing to restrict access to the keys used to unlock the benches and tables.”  Plaintiff also argued that the failure to warn and the failure to restrict access was a proximate cause of the agree.  The Supreme Court agreed, finding that “reasonable minds could differ both on the question whether the School District breached its duty of reasonable care and on the question whether its conduct was a proximate cause of the accident.”

On appeal, the plaintiff also argued that the trial court erred in dismissing the action against the county.  However, the Supreme Court held that the order dismissing the county without prejudice was not a final appealable order.

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