School is not Immune from Liability when Student is Injured in Shop Class

For a copy of the Court’s order, CLICK HERE.

Facts: Attorney Frizzell successfully represented a young high school student who lost most of his right hand in an industrial machine during his shop class.  The machine was an old, purchased by the school in approximately 1970, and students used it to bend steel by hand feeding a sheet of metal in between two large metal rollers.  When feeding metal into the machine, the Plaintiff’s gloved hand became caught in the rollers, pulling most of his fingers into the machine.  He tried to stop the machine using its emergency trip wire and the stop button, but he could not get them to work.  Therefore, he pulled his hand out, amputating four fingers and part of his hand.  The Plaintiff had been instructed to wear gloves while operating this machine by the shop teacher.

Claims: The Plaintiff sued the school (among other defendants), arguing (1) the instructor negligently instructed and supervised the Plaintiff, specifically that he instructed the Plaintiff to wear gloves while operating industrial machines with moving parts contrary to industry safety standards, (2) that the school negligently maintained the machine, causing the machine’s emergency trip wire to malfunction during the incident, and (3) the school negligently purchased and maintained the machine because its design included an unsafe recessed stop button, as opposed to a safer mushroom-head stop button that extends above its surroundings.

Common Law Immunity: The school moved for summary judgment, asking the Court to dismiss the case based on statutory and common law municipal immunity.  The Plaintiff objected.  Under New Hampshire Common Law, schools might be immune from liability for their teachers’ actions if the Court determines that exposing the school to liability would focus a “stifling attention” on the teacher’s job performance, such that the teacher is deterred from effectively performing his discretionary duties because of a fear of litigation.  The Court held that the school is not immune in this case, because student safety is always of paramount importance to teachers.  In other words, a fear of litigation would not exert any significant additional stifling attention on the teacher because the importance of student safety was already paramount.  Regarding the school’s maintenance of the trip wire and failure to retrofit the stop button, the Court held that it was not clear whether the school affirmatively decided not to fix the trip wire or button, or if it overlooked the problems.  Therefore, because immunity is not a defense to a claim of mere inaction or inattention, the school was not entitled to immunity on these claims either.

Statutory Immunity: Under New Hampshire RSA 507-B:15, schools are immune against claims relating to instruction, monitoring, and supervision of students.  However, there is an exception to this immunity if the claims relate to the “operation” of its “physical premises.”  The Plaintiff argued that this exception applied in this case, and the Court agreed.  RSA 507-B:2’s premises liability exception requires a nexus between the claim and the governmental unit’s ownership, occupation, or operation of its physical premises.  The Court held that the teacher’s instruction to wear gloves while operating the machine constituted a part of the “operation” of the school’s physical premises; therefore, the Court denied the defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment based on statutory immunity.

Conclusion:  After the Court denied the defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment, the parties settled the case during private mediation.  For a copy of the Court’s order, CLICK HERE.

Advertisements