Nash v. Port Washington Union Free School District, 2011 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 3015 (2d Dept. 2011)

School District Found Liable, As A Matter of Law, For Breach Of Its Duty To Supervise, Which Resulted In A Fire In The Science Lab

Plaintiff was a sophomore in high school when he was severely burned while in a science lab at the high school. Plaintiff accompanied his friend to the science lab after normal school hours. Plaintiff’s friend was working on a project at the lab. Plaintiff’s friend used alcohol to sterilize the work area and clean his hands. There was a lighter lying on a table and Plaintiff’s friend, who was known to be fidgety, picked it up and activated it. When he did this, a fire erupted because of the presence of the alcohol. At the time of the accident, the boys were alone in the classroom. The teacher that was supposed be supervising them left the school premises to grab something to eat.

Plaintiff made a motion for summary judgment against the School District arguing that the District breached its duty to supervise and as a result the accident occurred. The School District cross moved for summary judgment arguing the accident was entirely the fault of the boy that used the lighter and no amount of supervision could have prevented the accident. The trial court granted Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment.

The Appellate Division, Second Department, affirmed the decision. The Appellate Division held that as a matter of law the School District breached its duty to supervise the students when their teacher left them alone. This was a proximate cause of the accident because the boys had previously been instructed not touse alcohol on the glass beaker. If the teacher had been present in the classroom, then she could have stopped them from using the alcohol.

The Appellate Division also noted that even though the accident happened after regular school hours, the duty to supervise Plaintiff was the same as if it occurred during regular school hours. This duty being that of a “reasonably prudent parent.” This is because the project they were working on was for school credit and not a voluntary extracurricular activity. If it had been an extracurricular activity then the School District’s duty would have been the lesser standard of a “reasonable and prudent person.”