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Hendrickson v. Moses Lake School District

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 3

June 8, 2017

HEIDI JO HENDRICKSON, a single person, Appellant,
v.
MOSES LAKE SCHOOL DISTRICT, a municipal corporation, Respondent.

          Pennell, J.

         School districts have a special duty to protect students in their custody and care. Heidi Jo Hendrickson claims the Moses Lake School District (the district) violated this duty when she severed her thumb during shop class. At trial, the court declined to issue a jury instruction on the district's enhanced duty of care. Instead, the instructions were limited to ordinary principles of duty and contributory negligence. We agree with Ms. Hendrickson that the trial court should have instructed the jury about the district's heightened duty of care. However, contributory negligence remained applicable. Because the inadequate instruction about the district's duty could have impacted the jury's verdict, this matter is remanded for retrial.

         FACTS

         Fifteen-year-old freshman Heidi Hendrickson injured herself while working on a project for shop class. Using a push stick, Ms. Hendrickson guided a board through a table saw to make a small cut. When she felt the board come to a stop, she became scared. She set the push stick down, tried to wiggle the board free, and cut her right thumb. At the time Ms. Hendrickson cut herself, Kevin Chestnut, her shop teacher, could see the table saw area but was standing in a fenced area outside the back of the room. As a result of that cut, doctors amputated Ms. Hendrickson's thumb to her first joint. Ms. Hendrickson sued the district, alleging negligence in that the district (1) failed to use and maintain required safety equipment and guards, (2) failed to provide her with reasonable instruction, and/or (3) failed to reasonably supervise her on the use of the table saw.

         At trial, Mr. Chestnut testified about how he trains students to use the table saw. After demonstrating two different types of cuts, the students would make those cuts one at a time until they performed the cut correctly. The students then took a written test. Once they passed the test, Mr. Chestnut would supervise the students over the next six weeks as they made 40-50 cuts. If the students earned his trust, Mr. Chestnut allowed them to use the table saw on their own. Specifically regarding the safe use of the table saw, Mr. Chestnut testified he told the students to always use a push stick when making their cuts and to turn off the table saw if anything unusual happens. Mr. Chestnut also stated he removed the anti-kickback device and the splitter from the table saw because, if those components became misaligned, operating the table saw could be "extremely dangerous." 5 Verbatim Report of Proceedings (Feb. 1, 2016) at 925. According to Mr. Chestnut, Ms. Hendrickson made 40-50 cuts correctly before he allowed her to use the saw on her own. At the time of her injury, Ms. Hendrickson had made approximately 100 cuts.

         Before submitting the case to the jury, the trial court heard extensive argument on jury instructions. Ms. Hendrickson proposed the following instruction:

A school district has a "special relationship" with a student in its custody and a heightened duty of care to protect him or her from foreseeable harm. Harm is foreseeable if the risk from which it results was known, or in the exercise of reasonable care should have been known. The imposition of this duty is based on the placement of the student in the care of the school with the resulting loss of the student's ability to protect himself or herself. The relationship between a school district and a student is not a voluntary relationship, as children are required by law to attend school. The protective custody of teachers is thus mandatorily substituted for that of the parent.

Clerk's Papers (CP) at 1308. The court declined to give that instruction, instead instructing the jury as follows:

INSTRUCTION NO. 12 Negligence is the failure to exercise ordinary care. It is the doing of some act that a reasonably careful person would not do under the same or similar circumstances or the failure to do some act that a reasonably careful person would have done under the same or similar circumstances.
INSTRUCTION NO. 13 Ordinary care means the care a reasonably careful person would exercise under the same or similar circumstances.
INSTRUCTION NO. 14 When referring to a child, ordinary care means the same care that a reasonably careful child of the same age, intelligence, maturity, training, and experience would exercise under the same or similar circumstances.
INSTRUCTION NO. 18 Every person has the right to assume that others will exercise ordinary care, and a person has a right to proceed on such assumption until he or she knows, or in the exercise of ordinary care should know, to the contrary.

CP at 1528-30, 1534. Ms. Hendrickson filed a written exception to the court's refusal to give the special relationship instruction.

         Additionally over Ms. Hendrickson's objection, the trial court instructed the jury on the district's affirmative defense of Ms. Hendrickson's contributory negligence. The district claimed Ms. Hendrickson's injuries were proximately caused by her (1) failure to use a push stick while operating the table saw and (2) failure to turn off the table saw after the board became stuck in the saw. ...


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