Canada: Court Rules that Phys-Ed Teacher was Negligent in Coaching Field Hockey

Introduction

On June 26, 2009, the Supreme Court of British Columbia held that the Chilliwack School District (school district) was liable for the injuries sustained by a Grade 7 student playing field hockey in Physical Education (PE) class. The court found that the physical education teacher fell below the standard of care as the student lacked both the experience and the proper instruction to play this particular sport.

The student sued the school district for negligently failing to progressively teach and coach him in the necessary skills to play field hockey. In doing so, the student argued that the school exposed him to being struck in the face by another student's stick during the course of a game.

The school district argued that it had met the necessary standard of care in instructing and supervising the student in PE class. In addition, the school district argued that even if the teacher did fall below the standard of care, the student's level of dysfunction and somatoform illness were not caused by the accident but were a combination of pre-existing conditions.

The Accident

Devon Hussack, a student in his Grade 7 school year, had a history of chronic absenteeism. He had missed over one-third of the school year at the time of the accident. In particular, the student had missed the entire three-week long field hockey unit when he was allowed to play in the "Round Robin" game on the last day of the unit. The unit was designed to take three-weeks of the school term comprised of six to seven classes. The classes were sixty-eight minutes in length and included approximately forty minutes of practicing the skills.

On April 17, 1998, the PE teacher encouraged Devon to join the class. The teacher thought this would be a good opportunity for the student to participate in the PE class and would help the student obtain a passing grade for the school year. A pass in PE was a mandatory requirement for the student to be promoted to the next grade level.

Prior to the accident, the student had no field hockey experience. The student did, however, have a background in ice and floor hockey. At trial, two competing field hockey experts put forward evidence as to whether having a background in other types of hockey sports would be an advantage or disadvantage in being able to have a basic set of skills to play field hockey. The court found that the student did not have the basic requisite skills to play field hockey.

The PE teacher divided the students into four relatively equal teams. Prior to the class, the teacher reminded the students about the four basic rules of the game: (1) not using the back of the stick; (2) not using their feet; (3) not lifting the sticks above their knees; and (4) not checking from behind. When the games commenced, the teacher assumed a position in the middle of the field to supervise the two games. At the midpoint of the class, one student had a break-a-way towards the goal. Devon chased her down and attempted to check her from behind. The student swung her stick and struck Devon in the nose. He was taken to the hospital emergency room.

A few weeks after the injury, Devon complained of weakness, tiredness, altered concentration, sleep disruption and mild photophobia. However, the injury did not result in a brain injury. As the weeks went on, Devon complained of new and worsening symptoms. On his father's insistence, Devon did not undertake any counselling, psychiatric or psychological treatment despite his doctor's recommendations.

Justice Boyd went to considerable length in discussing the dynamic between Devon and his father. The court heard evidence that Devon's father was "over-gratifying, over-protective and over-lenient" with his son. Since Devon started school in kindergarten, all of Devon's teachers complained about Mr. Hussack's overbearing and controlling style of parenting.

Liability and the Standard of Care

In this case, the court ruled that the standard of care to be exercised by school authorities is that of a "careful or prudent teacher." The test contains four main factors to consider:

  1. Whether the activity was suitable to the age and mental and physical condition of the student;
  2. Whether the student was progressively trained and coached to do the activity properly and to avoid the danger;
  3. Whether the equipment was adequately and suitably arranged; and
  4. Whether the performance, having regard to its inherently dangerous nature, was properly supervised.

In applying this test, Canadian courts have noted that the standard of care is case specific and cannot be:

....applied in the same manner and to the same extent in every case. Its application will vary from case to case and will depend upon the number of students being supervised at any given time, the nature of the exercise or activity in progress, the age and the degree of skill and training which the student may have received in connection with such activity, the nature and condition of the equipment in use at the time, the competency and capacity of the students involved, and a host of other matters which may be widely varied but which, in a given case, may affect the application of the prudent parent-standard to the conduct of the school authority in the circumstances.

Essentially, the simple question to be answered in this case was whether it was reasonable for the PE teacher to allow Devon to participate in the field hockey class knowing he had no exposure to the sport despite having considerable hockey experience. The court answered this question by finding that the actions of the PE teacher were unreasonable in that the PE teacher failed to "progressively train and coach" the student in field hockey. The school district was held liable. The court ruled that Devon lacked the necessary "skills building blocks" that were put in place during his absences from all the previous classes. Thus, the PE teacher breached his duty of care to Devon. The court rejected the assumptions made by the teacher. The PE teacher testified that he was not concerned with Devon participating on the final day of the field hockey unit after having been absent for the previous three weeks. He stressed that almost all the students were beginners at field hockey. In his view, there was no need for any special skills to be progressively taught that Devon needed to participate safely in the game that day.

It is important to note the father's role in the court's foreseeability analysis. Not only were the injuries sustained by Devon foreseeable, but also the father's excessive reaction was foreseeable as the PE teacher had previous knowledge of the father's "smothering" of his child. The over-reaction to Devon's injuries was not unforeseeable, as the school had witnessed this type of behaviour from the father for many years. The court found that the dysfunctional family dynamic made Devon more vulnerable to psychological damage resulting from the physical injury sustained in the field hockey game. However, this did not negate or minimize the school's liability.

Devon was awarded $1,365,000 in damages. This included $125,000 for non-pecuniary damages, $200,000 for past loss of income, $1,000,000 for future loss of income earning capacity and $40,000 in future care costs.

Lessons Learned

This decision demonstrates the significance of safety when students are engaging in physical activity. To meet the requisite standard of care, a teacher must be able to prove that the students were trained and coached in a progressive way that ensures they have the "building block skills" to participate in the activity. In the event these building block skills are lacking, the teacher should not allow the student to participate. This decision shows that even when the student is at risk of failing the class that will result in not being promoted to the next grade, safety is the paramount consideration when it comes to participation in PE class. The decision is also noteworthy for the court's focus on the family dynamic between Devon and his father. School districts must be aware that an over-reaction by a parent to an injury to their child may be a factor in the liability analysis. Even in extreme cases where the overreaction by a parent exacerbates a sustained injury and even causes further injury to the child, the court may still hold the school liable.

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