Accidents at school: Should you hop, skip, and jump down to your local solicitor after a playground injury? 25 Mar 2019
Autumn is upon us and it’s the start of another academic year. With a 7 year old boy recently being reported in the press as Britain’s youngest skydiver, traditionally risky activities are becoming increasingly accessible to children. But when it comes to school life, can children have a bit of rough and tumble in the playground or does our legal system wrap pupils in cotton wool, allowing the ‘compensation culture’ to cross the school gates? Victoria Gallanders investigates.
It’s a fact of life that children will sometimes get injured at school. For many adults a grazed knee in the playground was just part and parcel of growing up, and the courts too appreciate that children are bound to have some minor injuries when at school. However, sadly not all school injuries are minor. This was reinforced this month when a school in Boston was fined £16,500 by the HSE after a 16 year old girl lost most of her fingers to burns sustained from plaster of Paris in an art lesson.
Three common scenarios when a school pupil may suffer injury through no fault of their own are when they are injured by another child who was insufficiently supervised, injured when using school equipment, or injured in poorly maintained grounds. Each of these situations is looked at in turn below:
It is well established that schools and teachers should ensure that pupils are safe at school. One aspect of this is supervising children to prevent them from injuring themselves and one another. The courts accept that as children get older they will need less supervision, except when participating in more risky activities when a higher level of supervision is required. Similarly, as children get older they are more aware of the consequences of their actions, with the result that even if poorly supervised, blame may be apportioned to the wrongdoing child themselves as well as the school.
So when will a school be liable for insufficiently supervising children? The answer is that there are no hard and fast rules for this and cases tend to turn on their facts. For example, in Palmer v Cornwall County Council (2009) a year 9 pupil was hit in the eye by a rock thrown by a fellow year 9 pupil during their lunch break. The accident occurred on school fields and there was only one dinner lady supervising approximately 300 pupils from years 7 – 10. The Court of Appeal found that to have just one supervisor watching over the year 7 and 8 pupils and glancing at the year 9 and 10 pupils was negligent and the local authority was therefore ordered to pay compensation to the injured child. However, this is contrasted with Pettican v Enfield LBC (1970) where a child’s eye was poked by a piece of chalk when children were fooling around during indoor break time on a wet day. Although teachers had to supervise more than one classroom, the local authority was found not to be liable. Liability therefore depends on the individual circumstances of each case.
A school or local authority’s duty to supervise children can also extend to before and after the school day. For example, when children are waiting outside school for lessons to start and making their way home in the afternoon they can be particularly vulnerable to passing motorists. In July 2009 The Hackney Gazette reported an all too familiar story of a pupil who broke his shoulder and arm in a road traffic accident with a motorcyclist outside his school. Whilst liability for such accidents may sometimes lay with the motorist, schools and local authorities should also ensure that children are supervised appropriately outside the school gates.
Schools should also ensure that pupils are reasonably safe when using school equipment. Therefore if a child is injured when using defective or unsuitable playground apparatus or sports equipment, the school may be liable. Schools should make sure that play equipment is suitable for the ages of pupils at the school. So, for example, climbing frames should not be too high for younger children, and there should be soft tarmac or bark chippings below them to minimise injury if a child were to fall.
School equipment also covers desks, scissors, test tubes…in fact most school property which a child uses in the course of a school day. Again, when determining whether equipment is suitable, the court will look at a child’s age. For example, in Butt v Cambridgeshire and Ely CC (1970) a child was poked in the eye with a pair of scissors. The class was of 9 and 10 year olds and the local authority was not found liable. In contrast however, the local authority in Black v Kent City Council (1983) was found liable when a seven year old was poked in the eye by sharp scissors, as blunt ended scissors would have been more suitable for this age group. Therefore if a child is injured by unsuitable or faulty equipment, they may be entitled to compensation but again the case will turn on its facts.
Poorly maintained grounds
Finally, many school injuries result from trips, slips and falls. Under the Occupiers Liability Act 1957, schools must take reasonable care to ensure that pupils are reasonably safe when on school premises. This means that if they trip over a raised pavement slab, or a divot in a playing field, and the school had not acted reasonably in not spotting and remedying the defect, the child could be entitled to compensation. When considering what is reasonable, the courts accept that a child would not be expected to be as careful as an adult, and so there is a higher standard that schools must reach to escape liability.
If a pupil wanders into an area that is out of bounds, and is therefore a trespasser, the school could still be liable for an accident that occurs. This can pose a great concern to schools, as the courts have found occupiers liable for accidents caused by out of bounds premises such as sky lights and fire escapes. However the standard that the school must meet is much lower than when a pupil is allowed on the premises, and essentially they only have to protect pupils from dangers that they are aware of or should reasonably be aware of.
Therefore in short, the courts do accept that sometimes pupils will suffer minor injuries at school and they should not be smothered in cotton wool. However this does not negate the fact that children can be seriously injured when under a school’s care, and should therefore be protected. Whether a school is liable for an accident will largely depend on the individual facts of the case, and parents should therefore contact a lawyer as soon as possible if they feel that their child has a potential claim.