Written Supervision Standard Not Followed in Golf Mishap December 1985, NRPA Law Review, Parks & Recreation (c) copyright 1985 National Recreation and Park Association
The Brahatcek case described herein provides a good illustration of negligence liability based upon employees violating the written standard established by their own agency. Negligence is the violation of an applicable standard of care which causes injury. A case can be made for negligence liability when the actual conduct of employees fails to reflect the agency's own detailed written instructions regarding supervision, adequate instruction, and other safety considerations.
The administrator in this particular instance was not even aware that his written standards were not being followed until after the injury occurred. If properly implemented and executed, an agency's internal written standards can provide evidence of due care to avoid negligence liability. On the other hand, a discrepancy between such written standards and day-to-day reality can be used against the agency as demonstrated by this case. Consequently, the value of written standards depends on effective oversight to ensure that the customs, practices, usages by field personnel truly conform to agency policies.
Appreciating Golf, Co-equal With Safety?
In the case of Brahatcek v. Millard School District, 202 Neb. 86, 273 N.W.2d 680 (1979), plaintiff Darlene Brahatcek brought a wrongful death action against the defendant school district after her son David died following an accident in a physical education class. David, who was a ninth grade student 14 years of age, was injured on April 3, 1974, during a physical education class conducted in the gymnasium of Millard Central Junior High School. He was struck by a golf club swung by a fellow student, Mark Kreie. He was rendered unconscious and died 2 days later without regaining consciousness.
At the time of the accident, mandatory golf instruction classes were being conducted in the gym due to inclement weather. David's class consisted of 34 boys and 24 girls supervised by two teachers. On the first day of class, students were instructed regarding the proper procedures to be followed including golf grip, stance, swing, etiquette, and safety. Since David was absent from class on this particular day, he missed these instructions. No such instructions were given prior to the second scheduled class. The accident occurred during this second class.
Students hit three or four plastic "wiffle" balls with a golf club from a tee placed on a mat. The gym was divided in half for this activity. The activity was conducted as follows:
The students were divided into groups of four or five students and each group was assigned to the use of one of the mats. The boys used the mats on the south side of the gym and hit in a southerly direction. The girls used the mats on the north, and hit the golf balls in a northerly direction. At the start of the class all of the students were to sit along the center line of the basketball court between the two rows of mats. On the signal of one of the instructors one student from each group would go up to the assigned mat, tee up a ball, and wait for the signal to begin. After the student had hit all of the balls on the mat he was to lay the club down and return to the center of the gym. When all of the students were back at the center line, the next student in each group was directed to retrieve the balls and the procedure was repeated.
Prior to the accident, David had never had a golf club in his hands. He was the second or third student to go to the mat at the end of the boy's row. Experiencing difficulty, he asked the members of his group to help him.
Mark Kreie, who had been the last to use the club, came forward and showed David how to grip the club and told him that he (Kreie) would take two practice swings then hit the ball. David moved to the east and stood against the folded up bleachers about 10 feet to the rear of Kreie. Kreie looked over his shoulder to observe David before taking two practice swings. He then stepped up to the ball and took a full swing at it. Unaware that David had moved closer, he hit David with the club on the follow-through.
At the time of the accident, one of the supervisors, a student teacher (Haley), was helping one of the other students a few mats away from David's group. The other teacher (Beveridge) was supervising the girls at the other end of the gym. She testified that "had she seen Haley devoting all of his attention to one boy she would have watched the entire class." However, Beveridge did not instruct student teacher Haley prior to the class that he should not spend too much time with one student. Neither Beveridge nor Haley saw David get hit by the golf club.
The school principal (Pane) indicated that the school had written rules of instruction for the mandatory class in golf "specifically setting forth in what manner or procedure the instruction was to be undertaken and achieved." The stated objectives of such instruction were "to develop the skills and appreciation for the sport of golf, with the coequal consideration that the instruction be accomplished with safety."
Safety should be stressed at all times, especially when you are rained out. If in the gym, one can set up stations on the floor along the one side of the bleachers, divide all students into that many stations and have them sit on the outstretched bleachers on the opposite side. Have the first person bit four or five balls to the second person across the gym. When the first is done hitting, he will go to the end of his group and the second person hits and the third person retrieves and so on.
These written rules of instruction described a physical arrangement for the golfing activity which was quite different from that being followed by Beveridge and Haley at the time of the accident. The recommended procedures placed the entire width of the gymnasium between the golfer and the other members of his or her group. In addition, these written rules included the following "Safety Hints": (1) Never hit a shot until you are sure those in front of you are out of range; (2) Never swing a club, especially on the tees, unless you are sure no one is standing close to you.
Pane testified that it was his understanding that golf instructions were provided according to the school's written rules. Beveridge and another teacher had decided to vary the placement of the mats from that recommended in the written instructions. It was not until after the fatal accident that Pane discovered that actual instruction was different from that prescribed. Pane admitted that "if the instructions had been followed it would have been difficult to have two people on the mat at the same time." The recommended procedure would have required Kreie to walk across the entire width of the gymnasium to assist David.
The trial court entered judgment for Brahatcek and awarded damages totalling $53,570. The school district appealed to the state supreme court. The school district maintained that the evidence in this case was insufficient to support a judgment for Brahatcek. Further, the school district contended that the trial court had erred in not finding David guilty of contributory negligence and/or that the intervening negligence of Kreie was the legal cause of David's death.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court of Nebraska provided the following description of general legal principles governing negligence liability which were applicable in this case:
In an action for negligence, the burden is on the plaintiff tin this case Brahatcek] to show that there was a negligent act or omission by the defendant and that it was a proximate cause of the plaintiff's injury or a cause which proximately contributed to it. Negligence must be measured against the particular set of facts and circumstances which are present in each case. Negligence is defined as doing something which an ordinary, prudent person would not have done under similar circumstances or failing to do something which an ordinary, prudent person would have done under similar circumstances . . .
Inattention to the duty to exercise care in a situation which reasonably may be regarded as hazardous is negligence, notwithstanding the act or omission involved would not in all cases, or even ordinarily, be productive of injurious consequences. The risk reasonably to be perceived defines the duty to be obeyed; it is the risk reasonably within the range of apprehension, of injury to another person, that is taken in account in determining the existence of the duty to exercise care.
Under the circumstances of this case, the school district had been found negligent for its lack of supervision. When liability is based upon an instructor's lack of supervision, the state supreme court found "such lack must appear in the proximate [i.e. legal] cause of the injury with the result that the liability would not lie if the injury would have occurred notwithstanding the presence of the instructor." As defined by the court, "proximate cause as used in the law of negligence is that cause which in the natural and continuous sequence, unbroken by an efficient intervening cause, produces the injury and without which the injury would not have occurred."
As noted by the state supreme court, "on appeal the findings of the trial court will not be disturbed unless clearly wrong." However, under the circumstances of this particular case, the court concluded: "We have no difficulty in finding that the lack of supervision was a proximate cause of the death of David."
In the instant case, we are dealing with a ninth grader who had never before swung a golf club. The instruction was conducted indoors, in close quarters. There was some testimony, which the trial court could have accepted, the physical arrangement, which was contrary to defendant's suggestion ... would have prevented the opportunity for injury if followed. There is a question as to whether there was adequate safety instruction regarding the use of golf club prior to the commencement of the class at which the fatal injury occurred. There is evidence, which the [trial] court could have accepted, that on the day the accident occurred the teaching procedure outlined by the regular instructor was not followed by the student teacher. The record would also indicate the student teacher may not have been properly informed as to the procedure to be followed. There is no question that the trial judge could have found that, at the very best, there was ineffective observation and attention on the part of the student teacher when ordinary care or supervision would have prevented the occurrence which resulted in the death of David.
The state supreme court also addressed the issue of intervening negligence. The school district had argued that "even if it were guilty of negligence its negligence was superseded by that of Mark Kreie, decedent's classmate, and Kreie's negligence was an efficient intervening cause which produced the injury." The state supreme court rejected this argument.
Generally, the effect of an intervening negligent act is tested by determining whether it was such as might reasonably have been foreseen as a consequence of the claimed negligence of the original actor ... The law does not require precision in foreseeing the exact hazard or consequence which happens. It is sufficient if what occurs is one of the kind of consequences which might reasonably be foreseen.
In the opinion of the court, there was "no question about foreseeability in this case." According to the court, if the school district's teachers "had exercised proper supervision, the death would not have occurred."
The state supreme court further rejected the school district's contention that David was guilty of contributory negligence. In addressing this issue, the state supreme court noted the following general principles regarding the defense of contributory negligence.
One who is capable of understanding and discretion and who fails to exercise ordinary care and prudence to avoid obvious danger is negligent or contributorily negligent . . . A minor is held to the exercise of that degree of care which an ordinarily prudent child of the same capacity to appreciate and avoid danger would use. Whether or not a minor 14 years of age is of sufficient knowledge, discretion, and appreciation of danger that he may be subject to the defense of contributory negligence is generally a question of fact for the jury.
Given the judgment in favor of plaintiff, state supreme court concluded that "the trial court in this instance must have found the deceased was not contributorily negligent." Based upon the record in this case, the state supreme court concluded: "we cannot say that the findings of the trial court are clearly wrong." An appellate court will not disturb findings of fact by trial court unless such findings are clearly erroneous. Under the circumstances of this case, the state supreme court was satisfied that the trial court could reasonably have found David was not guilty of contributory negligence.
The golf instruction was a required subject. David, a ninth grader, had no understanding of the game and the record is not clear that he was properly warned of the apparent danger in the sport. If the testimony of Mark Kreie is accepted, Mark was complying with the directions of Mrs. Beveridge and giving help to another student. The mere fact there is a recognized amount of danger in the activity by reason of a swinging club is not contributory negligence unless the knowledge of the danger is made known to the child. The doing of an act with appreciation of the amount of danger is necessary in order to say as a matter of law a person is negligent.
It cannot be said that the deceased had sufficient knowledge of the danger involved, considering the fact he was not familiar with the game of golf and had never before had a golf club in his hands. He had not attended the first class where instruction and practice were provided. He had not received any instruction on any aspect of the game by any teacher prior to his attempted use of the club. The only instruction he received was that provided by the fellow student who struck the fatal blow.
As a result, the state supreme court, with two of the seven judges dissenting, affirmed the judgment of the trial court against the school district.