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Totally Disabled Parent Seeks Victim Status: Court: Pluto is less remote to us than the Plaintiffs argument

Stephen Prescott believes that parents may think twice about attending their children’s school events if the law prevents them from successfully suing the school corporation after being injured on school property. The Connecticut Supreme Court recently heard and rejected Prescott’s argument, finding that schools owed students’ parents no special duty of care.

Prescott was injured after his son’s Thanksgiving 1998 football game against a cross-town rival in Meriden. According to the opinion, Prescott was aware that heavy rain was predicted for game day. In fact, Prescott knew that other area football games had been cancelled because of the inclement weather. Nevertheless, he attended the game and sat on the top row of the bleachers. His was the visiting team.

Prescott had to walk on wet, muddy and slippery bleacher seats to get to his seat. There were no tread-covered stairs and no handrails. When Prescott began his descent after the game, he slipped and fell. The incident left him totally disabled.

Prescott claimed that the defendants had been negligent in the following manner: (1) allowing the bleachers to be used during heavy rain; (2) failing to postpone the game due to the heavy rain that caused the bleachers to become muddy, wet and slippery; (3) failing to provide a nonskid surface or stairs to protect against slipping; (4) failing to provide handrails; and (5) failing to inspect the bleachers to remedy the dangerous surface. The defendants, school and municipal officials, raised governmental immunity as a special defense and moved for summary judgment. The trial court and court of appeals ruled in favor of the defendants.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court noted that Connecticut state law generally provides municipal employees with qualified immunity in personal injury matters that occur on public property. One exception to the law is in situations “where the circumstances make it apparent to the public officer that his or her failure to act would likely subject an identifiable person to imminent harm.” The court noted that it had extended the exception to “narrowly defined classes of foreseeable victims.”

Prescott’s argument, in essence, was that as a school parent, he did or should fall within the class of foreseeable victims. However, the only class of foreseeable victims that Connecticut has recognized under these circumstances is schoolchildren who attended public schools during school hours. The court said that schoolchildren fell with the class because “they were intended to be the beneficiaries of particular duties of care imposed by law on school officials; they were legally required to attend school rather than being there voluntarily; their parents were thus statutorily required to relinquish their custody to those officials during those hours; and, as a matter of policy, they traditionally require special consideration in the face of dangerous conditions.”

The court reasoned that Prescott attended the game voluntarily. Unlike children, he was not compelled to attend by any statute, regulation or other legal requirement. Accordingly, he was no different from any of the other spectators and deserved no special protection. The court further considered Prescott’s argument that, “because public policy fostering advances in education now includes a specific focus on parental involvement as a necessary component to a child’s academic success, it is reasonable to extend that duty of care (as a class of foreseeable victims) abrogating qualified governmental immunity to parents attending school sponsored activities.” Prescott cited a body of research indicating that parental involvement in their children’s education is closely linked to the children’s success in school. He reasoned that, "if this seriously injured parent cannot pursue a cause of action against the municipal employees whose negligence created a readily ascertainable risk of imminent harm, then parents may think twice in the future about attending their children’s school events, thus chilling the educational policy in favor of parental involvement.”

The court was not persuaded. “We do not think that any parent will choose to attend his or her child’s school event – athletic or otherwise – because he or she may be able to recover in negligence against school officials if he or she is injured during that attendance, and we do not think that any parent so inclined to attend such an event will decline to do so because he or she may not be able to secure such a recovery,” it said.

The court concluded by saying, “the connection between parental involvement in a child’s education and the likelihood of recovery in the event of negligence is simply too remote rationally to form the basis of the policy choice urged on us by the plaintiff.”

Accordingly, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower courts’ rulings in favor of the defendants.

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