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School outing: Duty of care to a child with complex needs

John Morrell reviews the recent decision in Debbage v Norfolk County Council in which a special needs school providing specialist education for children with complex needs had not breached its duty of care in respect of a 13 year old boy with Coffin Lowry Syndrome who suffered personal injuries as a result of a fall from a slide at a playground when on a school trip. Whilst only a County Court decision, the case acts as a reminder of the relevant duty of care on teachers and illustrates a situation where the judge was prepared to accept the teacher’s evidence even against the background of a higher duty of care owed to the disabled claimant.

Facts

The claimant was known to have “Coffin Lowry Syndrome”, which meant that he had learning difficulties, poor social development, poor language skills and difficulty in walking. He attended a school catering for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties. When aged 13, he went on a school outing which included a trip to a playground, and while there he fell to the ground from a ladder attached to a slide. No-one saw him fall.

There was no doubt that the claimant required supervision, and on this school trip there were four members of staff and eight children.

There was disputed evidence about the mother’s knowledge about the nature of the school trips which her son took part in, and the activities on those trips. It was, however clear that the mother knew, and was happy, that her son played on play equipment in the school playground, significantly including a slide.

Findings

The court found that the claimant was an energetic boy who loved to run around and play and was happy to play on bikes and his tricycle. Preferring the teachers’ evidence to that of the child’s mother, the district judge found that the mother knew that her son visited parks with the school where he played on playground equipment.

The district judge held that the relevant duty of care on a teacher is:

(a) That which would be exercised by a reasonably careful parent. A teacher cannot be expected to insure children against injury from ordinary play in the playground or, indeed, in the classroom.

(b) When it is known that a person to whom the duty is owed has some physical disability, a higher standard of care is required.

Although there was no risk assessment, the judge was satisfied that an adequate check of the playground was taken before the children began to play. Because the children had statements of special educational needs, the claimant had been individually assessed and it had been determined that he could play safely on playground equipment. A risk assessment of the playground itself was unnecessary, and in the context of this case would have been of no relevance.

The decision to allow the claimant to use the playground was reasonable, and the supervision was of an acceptable level and standard. There was nothing wrong with the playground equipment.

Even given the higher standard of care owed to persons with a disability the school was not in breach of its standard of care.

Comment

This was a robust decision in which the judge was prepared to accept the teacher’s evidence even against the background of a higher duty of care owed to the disabled claimant.

Contact

For further information please contact John Morrell John Morrell on DD +44 20 7645 9538 or at john.morrell@dwf.co.uk

By John Morrell

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This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.

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