Schools May have Legal Duty to Provide Safe Transportation
John T. Wolohan
With the fall sports seasons under way, school and athletics administrators need to be aware that the use of unsafe equipment and the negligent conduct of coaches and medical staff are not the only things they need to protect themselves against. In addition, administrators must realize that when sponsoring activities, schools and organizations may also have a corresponding legal duty to ensure that athletes and other participants are provided safe transportation to and from events.
Therefore, while school and athletics officials at Bathurst High School may have limited liability because of New Brunswick's compensatory restrictions, administrators in U.S. schools may not be so lucky — especially if it could be shown that the vehicle involved in the accident would not have passed a motor vehicle inspection in its pre-collision state.
To satisfy their duty to provide safe transportation, the first step school and athletic administrators should take is to not only establish clear policies on vehicle maintenance, but also to move away from the use of 15-passenger vans of the type involved in the New Brunswick crash. Because these vehicles have shown a tendency to roll over, especially on wet or slippery roads, causing a number of deaths over the past 10 years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has actually recommended that schools hire buses for all team travel — even those located a short distance away. This has a legal as well as a safety benefit: By using commercial buses, a school is able to transfer liability for providing safe transportation from the school to the bus company.
Since it may not be financially feasible for every school to use buses to transport teams to every game, it is essential that administrators establish a clear policy on who can drive team vans. For example, at the college level, some schools allow students over 21 to drive the vans to and from games. However, because of their inexperience driving large vans, or the possibility of fatigue after playing in an athletic contest, if at all possible the only people allowed to transport teams should be coaches or other school personnel.
Lawsuits galore are expected in the wake of January's crash of a 15-passenger 1997 Ford Club Wagon that killed seven members of the Bathurst (N.B.) High School basketball team and a teacher. Two probes of the accident released in July suggest great potential for culpability, although several attorneys interviewed by The Telegraph-Journal of New Brunswick suggested that damages awarded to the parents of the crash victims will be minimal because of the province's compensatory restrictions. A report filed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police showed the tires of the van were worn and scalloped, the van's left self-adjuster cable was broken, and the left rear brake adjuster was not working and out of alignment. In addition, the mechanic who inspected the vehicle after the accident determined that the van would not have passed a motor vehicle inspection in its pre-collision state. The province's provision for punitive damages specifies that they can be collected only for reprehensible conduct, something that experts believe is not applicable in this case. The accident occurred when the team's van slammed into a tractor-trailer on an icy road.
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