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Split Court Rules No School Liability for DUI Crash Death After Shots With Coach

Following the death of a high school basketball player and her boyfriend in a single-car accident shortly after the pair left the home of her coach, who provided alcohol, the girl’s mother sued the school district for liability. However, the State of Washington Supreme Court ruled in this case, the school district could not be held liable.

Although the court noted the actions of the coach were “so extremely indifferent to the risk of injury to (decedents) that someone must be liable for (plaintiff’s) claims.” However, plaintiff, as the representative of her daughter’s estate, did not choose to bring action against the coach. Instead, she brought a number of claims against the school district for direct liability and vicarious liability for the negligence of its employee. Direct negligence claims included negligent hiring and retention, negligent training and negligent supervision. On these and the vicarious liability claims (for which the negligent employee would have needed to be acting in the course and scope of employment), the court held plaintiff failed to present genuine issues of material fact as to the school district’s liability, and thus the district was entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law.

Before delving further, we should note that Florida’s own dram shop and social liability laws when it comes to drunk driving accidents are rather limited also. F.S. 768.125 holds that a person who sells or furnishes alcohol to someone of lawful drinking age OR who is not known to be habitually addicted to alcohol won’t be liable for damages resulting from that person’s intoxication. (Here, both decedents were minors under 21, so it may have been possible to hold him personally liable for what occurred, but the question is still whether his employer would have been responsible.) Florida also has an “open house parties” statute, F.S. 856.015, that holds a person who owns or controls a residence may not allow an open house party to occur at the residence if alcohol or drugs are being possessed by people known to controlling party to be a minor and where the person fails to take reasonable steps to prevent the possession or consumption of the alcohol or drugs. A first offense is a second-degree misdemeanor; second offense OR one that results in serious bodily injury or death is a first-degree misdemeanor (punishable by up to one year in jail). In addition to a criminal conviction, one could be found negligent per se (meaning automatically negligent, regardless of whether they acted reasonably). 

But in this drunk driving accident case, the question wasn’t whether the person who hosted the party could be liable, but rather whether his school district employer could be accountable.

To prove negligent hiring and retention, one would need to show the employer knew or in the exercise of ordinary care should have known of employee’s unfitness when hired OR that the employer retained an employee who was incompetent or unfit and failed to exercise reasonable care in discovering this or acting on it. Plaintiff alleged here the school was negligent for hiring the coach who lacked a college degree or other teaching certifications. However, the court found the coach still met the required qualifications for a high school coach: A high school diploma, 22-years-old, first aid and CPR-certified. Plaintiff did not provide evidence to indicate these qualifications were deficient or how it might have prevented what happened to her daughter. Neither was evidence presented the coach had a history of supplying alcohol to minors. Plaintiff alleged the school failed to check his references, but did not provide evidence any of his references were aware he gave minors alcohol or that this was a fact the school would have reasonably uncovered if they had talked to his references. As to the claim of negligent supervision, plaintiff alleged the district didn’t train the coach as to its no-alcohol policies or off-campus social events with his team. The court found there were no genuine issues of material fact indicating the school had a duty to do so.

As to the issue of vicarious liability, employers can be held responsible for the negligent acts of employees – but they must be found to have been acting in the course and scope of employment. Here, this was an off-campus, non-school-affiliated activity.

The court noted that schools do have an enhanced and solemn duty of reasonable care to protect students in their custody from foreseeable dangers – which may include those involving intentional torts that occur off school grounds. However, it has to be within the general field of danger that should have been anticipated. This, the court held, did not fall within those guidelines.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

Anderson v. Soap Lake Sch. Dist., Aug. 9, 2018, Washington Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

“Loss of Life Enjoyment” Damages After Orlando Car Accident, Aug. 5, 2018, Orlando Drunk Driving Accident Attorney Blog

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