Field trips provide students with an educational opportunity beyond books. When an accident occurs off school grounds during a field trip, the question becomes one of liability. California has provided clear guidance on this matter by providing school districts with field trip immunity.
California Education Code § 35330(d) states that all individuals - teachers, students, and chaperones - who attend a field trip waive all liability in case of injury or death during the excursion. When a field trip ventures outside of California, both adults and guardians of students must sign a liability waiver.
While that would seem to be the end of the question, a school's immunity does not extend to situations involving negligence. Even when negligence occurs, a school district may use the defense of comparative liability.
Negligence is acting or failing to act when you have a responsibility to another individual. That someone was negligent is not sufficient to overcome a school district's immunity.
In California, to prove negligence, you must show that:
- An individual (here, likely an employee of the school district) had a duty to act, sometimes referred to as a duty of care
- This individual breached this responsibility either by their actions or failure to act
- This individual's actions resulted in an injury to another person
- This individual's actions were the proximate cause of the other person's injury
- The other person suffered an actual injury
Let's unpack what this means.
Duty of Care
You must show that the person in question had a duty of care to you and some relationship with the school district.
For example, someone runs into you on a field trip and knocks you over. They break your arm. This person is not affiliated with the school district, and there's no evidence that any agent of the school district, such as a teacher, was negligent in preventing the person from running into you. In this situation, the school district will likely be considered to have immunity.
If, however, a teacher tells you it's fine to walk in a restricted section, resulting in you slipping and breaking your arm, you may have a case against the district.
In this situation, the teacher had a duty of care to you, and they failed in that duty by telling you to go into an unauthorized area. This situation would more likely be considered sufficiently negligent to override the immunity.
To file a negligence claim, you must suffer an injury. If the school bus driver on a field trip was speeding, they failed in their responsibility to the bus's riders. However, if their actions didn't injure you, you won't have grounds for a lawsuit.
The negligence of the person in question was the proximate cause of the accident. This means a relationship exists between that individual's negligence and your injury. Returning to the speeding school bus example, let's look at two different situations:
1. Because of the speeding bus, you fall out of your seat and break your arm. As the bus was speeding, you will likely be able to argue negligence.
2. After you arrive at the field trip destination, you exit the bus. About twenty feet from the bus, you trip on a curb and break your arm. The school district's immunity likely stands. While the driver was negligent in speeding, it would be difficult to show a relationship between the speeding and your tripping.
In California, if your negligence contributed to your injury, your ability to collect damages may be reduced. This is known as comparative negligence, and California is a pure comparative fault state. This means that, even if the other party is only one percent negligent, you may still collect damages from them.
Returning to the above example, when a teacher leads students into a restricted area, if a student was running when they slipped, a jury may find that the student contributed to their injury.
If you think you may have contributed to your accident, you should inform your personal injury attorney of these facts early in your relationship. They can help build a case that minimizes your role in the injury and maximizes your potential compensation.
If you've been injured during a field trip in California, you may think that you are unable to file a lawsuit. If you can show school officials failed to keep you and others reasonably safe during the field trip, you may have a case on the basis of negligence.