By Mark I. Melo, Esq.
The end of summer brings yet another school year for many families. With each new school year comes the usual wave of back-to-school nights, volunteer sign-ups, and parental permission slips to be signed, covering everything from athletic events to classroom field trips.
What you may not know is that there is a principle of California law known as “field trip immunity” connected with those permission slips that parents sign every year. As explained in California Education Code Section 35330(d), and Code of Regulations Title 5, Section 55220, school districts from elementary school up to the community college level are generally immune from liability for events occurring during field trips and similar excursions. This immunity is meant to encourage school districts to provide more educational opportunities for students by reducing their potential exposure to liabilities arising from such trips, and thus reducing the costs to the schools themselves for such trips.
This past August, the Court of Appeal analyzed the issues surrounding field trip immunity in the case of Anselmo v. Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District (2018) 25 Cal.App.4 th 948 . In that case, a player for Pierce College’s beach volleyball team was injured during a tournament hosted by Grossmont College. The player struck her knee on a rock that was buried in the sand of one of the volleyball courts, and sued Grossmont College for dangerous condition of public property. In response, Grossmont filed a demurrer based on the field trip immunity doctrine, and the Complaint was dismissed.
The Court of Appeal reversed the dismissal. The Court explained that a school district hosting an interscholastic athletic event owes a general duty to “all participating teams – both home and visitor – to avoid acts or omissions that materially increase the risks to participants beyond those inherent in the sport.” As a result, the Court held that Grossmont’s attempt to use field trip immunity as a defense was “absurd and unfair.”
Once the visiting teams arrived at Grossmont and the competition was underway, Grossmont had an ongoing responsibility to provide a “reasonably safe premises” – a responsibility which was not eliminated by field trip immunity. Although Pierce College did have the responsibility to transport the player and her teammates safely, Grossmont still had the duty to provide reasonably safe facilities for the use of all of the participating teams once they arrived at the school.
This same reasoning can apply to non-school facilities. Many of our insured clients operate facilities where various school-related events are held throughout the school year. Schools take field trips to local museums. Convention centers and hotels host academic and artistic competitions. Public and private entities alike host events ranging from track meets to marching band shows on their premises.
Thus, while the schools planning and taking these trips enjoy the protections of field trip immunity, the entities hosting these events do not. As a result, event hosts should be vigilant both before and during a scheduled event. Owners and operators of such public and private properties should use reasonable care not only in preparing their facilities for use by visiting students and teachers, but also in inspecting and maintaining their facilities while a field trip, competition, or other event is underway. In welcoming schools to visit their facilities, hosts should have adequate staffing available to address any potential safety concerns throughout the course of any educational event.