“Life is risky. People do not expect, and are not entitled to expect, to live in a risk-free environment. The measure of careful behaviour is reasonableness, not elimination of risk” (Gleeson CJ quote on Swain v Waverley Municipal Council)
A school’s liability surrounding student injuries, particularly during school sports, can be a complex issue. A failed slam dunk? A tackle gone wrong? Or even a fall while running?
This article will explain how and when schools may be liable for sporting injuries of their students. It will also discuss two real-life examples of the application of a school’s liability for an injury suffered by a student during school sport.
When are schools deemed liable for its students’ sports injuries?
- Schools and teachers have a duty of care to ensure reasonable steps are taken to minimise the risk of their students’ suffering injury or harm whilst under the supervision and care of the school.
- This duty of care extends to any extracurricular activities that the school offers to their students. This duty of care will also extend to any visiting students on the school’s grounds who are engaging in school sports.
- The traditional perception surrounding duty of care is that school teachers and any third party extracurricular facilitators will take care of the students the same way a parent would with their child.
- There is an expectation for schools and their teachers to take reasonable steps in protecting students against any foreseeable injuries that may take place whilst participating in school sport.
- In Queensland, the Department of Education provides educators with a student supervision guideline for over 70 activities. The guideline illustrates best practice methods to ensure the safety of students and further provides reasonable steps on mitigating school sport related injuries.
- An example of reasonable steps a school may implement to avoid a sport-related injury in rowing could include:
– Using appropriate equipment to better handle the boat i.e boat ramps
– Ongoing assessment of marine animal presence to avoid attack whist on the water;
– Watch and warn procedure for moving vehicles near boats;
– Correctly tying down and storing of equipment to mitigate tripping or similar hazards; and
– Having a first aid plan.
Example of a school not being held liable for a student sporting injury:
(Sanchez-Siridopoulos v Canavan  NSWC 1139)
In this case, a 10-year-old boy while at school was warming up for a PE class. During the warm-up, which involved players running from one side of the asphalt to another, the plaintiff bumped into another student and the plaintiff fell to the ground injuring her wrist. Years after the injury, the plaintiff developed complex regional pain syndrome in her injured wrist.
The plaintiff argued the injury had impacted her social and future professional life. The plaintiff alleged that the school had breached its duty of care to her by promoting a game/sporting activity that had given the risk of injury to the students involved. This was also corroborated by the alleged lack of supervision on behalf of the school and the risk of collision on the asphalt surface. The school defended the claim brought on the basis that they had taken the necessary precautions to promote the student’s safety so that no foreseeable injury would have occurred.
Justice Schmidt of the New South Wales Supreme Court found the defendant did not breach its duty of care to the plaintiff, due to the plaintiff unable to show the school teacher’s supervision was inadequate. Also, previous years of the school providing sports activities without incident was found to support the argument that the school had a history of taking reasonable steps to protect their students from injury during sporting activities.
This case highlights that fact that if a school takes reasonable steps to protect their students and the injury attained by the plaintiff was an unforeseeable risk then a school should not be held liable.
Example of a school being held liable:
(AMA v State of Victoria  VCC 1453)
A school student in Melbourne was awarded $198,892 for damages because of a serious knee injury she sustained while participating in a school sport following a hearing in the County Court of Victoria before Judge Morrish.
The girl, who was 16 years of age, told the principal’s assistant (the message was passed on to the sports teacher) that she was unable to participate in the lacrosse game, due to a physiotherapist telling her it was best for her to not play the sport on the day in order to not aggravate a current injury.
The sports teacher told the girl she “have to get up and do this now or else you will get detention and you’ll get into trouble” so the girl agreed to play lacrosse so that she was not at risk of the sports teacher getting upset or angry at her. Whilst participating in the game, the girl severely injured her previous aggravating knee injury, and which caused her knee further serious damage.
Judge Morrish found the school had breached its duty of care towards the girl. It was found that that whilst the girl had exaggerated the number of times the sports teacher had spoken to her and her tone, the sports teacher was abrupt and overbearing. Furthermore, that the sports teacher “impermissibly abdicated responsibility” for the girl’s safety and caused her harm.
Overall, this case shows how the school did not take reasonable care to protect the girl from any injuries. In this regard, it should have been obvious to the principal’s assistant and sports teacher that there was a foreseeable risk that the girl would have been injured had she participated in the lacrosse game, which she ultimately did receive a serious injury from.
To conclude, school sports liability is very broad and dependant on the specific circumstances of the way the injury was suffered and what steps, if any, were taken by the school to prevent such an injury occurring. Therefore, each school related sports injury is considered on a case-by-case basis.
Schools will be deemed liable for their students’ sporting injuries if the risk of such an injury occurring was foreseeable and where the supervising teacher or school did not take reasonable precautions in all of the circumstances to prevent the injury occurring.
Salerno Law’s personal injury and compensation law team are experienced and understand the impact these matters can have on people’s lives. We treat every case with the individual attention it deserves. We are dedicated to delivering the best results for all of our clients.
Marcus Savala – Salerno Law