In a recent case an appellate court reviewed a high school’s liability in the death of a student and catastrophic injury of another after consuming excessive alcohol at a private home.
The case arose when students received copies of a somewhat unintelligible invitation to an end-of-the-year party at a home that was miles away from school. The invitation specified it was for students from that high school only.
The cards had nothing to do with the school, although they referenced it. The morning before the party the principal questioned the two students throwing the party. They told him their parents would at the party. The principal also read an announcement to the student body that implied it might squelch the party.
The mother of the students throwing the party came home in the afternoon, but stayed in her room. Neither of the parents made any effort to stop the party before the student who died and another classmate drove away.
The students drank alcohol in the backyard. The students who later died and were injured had been drinking from two twelve packs and a bottle of vodka before arriving at the party.
Around 4 pm, the principal and a school employee came to the party to make sure things were okay. They confirmed with the student who lived at the house that his mother was at home.
About 30 minutes later, the two students who were about get hurt drove off. Miles away their car hit a tree and split in half. It killed one friend and left the other a quadriplegic with traumatic brain injury. The school, a nonprofit corporation, was sued. Also sued were the religious diocese that controlled the school, the principal, the parents of the students who hosted the party and the convenience store that sold the two students the alcohol they drank before the party.
At trial, the student handbook was part of the evidence. It specifically stated that the school wouldn’t be responsible for an event that was not officially sanctioned. It also contained a substance abuse policy that prohibited students from drinking or possessing any alcohol at a school-sponsored activity. Transgressions were punishable by expulsion.
The plaintiffs settled with the principal and dismissed all defendants except the school and diocese. The school sought to present evidence regarding the quadriplegic student’s prior treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. They showed he and his family had been counseled on avoiding situations where alcohol would be available.
Although it excluded the evidence, the court allowed the defense attorney to ask the parents whether they knew that the student had consumed alcohol the day before the accident.
The school sought to use a Florida statute that prevents a plaintiff to recover if he was impaired by the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of injury and as a result was more than 50% responsible for the harm.
The trial court agreed with the student’s parents that the statute wouldn’t apply to a minor’s impairment and claim though there was no case law to support that. It reasoned that the plaintiffs were his parents not him.
The judge also denied motions for directed verdict by the defendants and the jury awarded $55 million in damages with 53% of negligence attributed to the student and his parents, 25% to the school, 20% to the parents where the party had been held, and 2% to the person who bought the alcohol for the student.
The defendants appealed. The appellate court explained that a school’s duty of supervision could continue to after school or off-premises activities where those activities are “school related” or “school sponsored.” Neither of these descriptions could remotely be applied to the activity in question.
The plaintiffs argued that the principal and school were “undertakers” of a duty to the students at the party. The second question if the school had undertaken a duty was whether it had used reasonable care in rendering services and if so, was the student’s risk of harm increased by its failure to use reasonable care?
The appellate court explained that neither defendant undertook a special duty to care for the quadriplegic student. They weren’t invited, nor did they offer to call the student’s parents or otherwise supervise the student away from the premises and after school hours. Accordingly, the appellate court found that the undertaker’s duty did not apply.
The appellate court also examined the trial court’s refusal to allow the defense to raise the issue of the plaintiffs’ son’s intoxication and responsibility for more than 50% of the injuries. The appellate court concluded that the parents did not have greater rights than the minor. The appellate court reversed as to liability and noted that the trial court had no basis for refusing to allow the jury to consider the son’s prior alcohol and drug abuse rehabilitation records. The judgment was reversed.
If you are seriously hurt due to somebody else’s negligence, contact the knowledgeable Florida personal injury attorneys at Friedman, Rodman & Frank toll-free for a free consultation at (877) 448-8585.
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