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Jerkins v. Anderson

June 14, 2007

JOSEPH JERKINS, AN INFANT BY HIS GUARDIAN AD LITEM, CHARLES JERKINS; CHARLES JERKINS AND TONI JERKINS, INDIVIDUALLY, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
SOWETO ANDERSON; KEMBA N. ANDERSON; JOHN DOES 1-10 (FICTITIOUS INDIVIDUALS) AND ABC CORPORATIONS 1-10 (FICTITIOUS ENTITIES), DEFENDANTS, AND BOARD OF EDUCATION OF PLEASANTVILLE PUBLIC SCHOOLS AND ROSEMAY CLARKE, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

In this appeal, the issues are whether schools have a duty of reasonable supervision during dismissal and, if so, what is the scope of that duty.

In October of 2000, third-grader Joseph Jerkins transferred to the South Main Street elementary school in Pleasantville. The school is in a "walking district" with no bus service. It also is on a busy street. Joseph usually walked to school and back home with a family member. On June 15, 2001, an early-dismissal day, Joseph's adult brother walked him to school. At about 1:30 that afternoon, students were dismissed. Joseph left school unattended and played with friends. At 3:50 p.m., he was hit by a car several blocks from the school. The accident paralyzed Joseph from the neck down. Meanwhile, Joseph's brother went to the school at 2:50 p.m., the regular pick-up time. He did not see Joseph, and learned from a parent in the lobby that school let out early that day. He searched for Joseph, but later learned about the accident.

The school district has a four-page policy that addresses many safety issues, including supervision of students at dismissal. The policy stated that school administrators must cooperate with parents to prevent children from leaving school unsupervised, but it did not explain any procedures for how to accomplish supervision. At Joseph's school, the practice was that all teachers, aides, and security personnel supervised dismissal. The principal personally supervised early-dismissal days to make sure there were no children whose parents did not pick them up. Because the school was in a walking district, students walked home at dismissal unless they were picked up or went to the after-school program. Joseph was not registered in that program, and no guardian had requested that the school release him only if an adult came to pick him up.

Joseph's family asserts that they did not know that June 15, 2001 was an early-dismissal day. The school, however, indicated that it notified students and parents more than once about the school calendar, such as in a handbook given out at the start of the school year, a calendar given to parents at back-to-school night, and the June 2001 newsletter. Joseph's family remembered receiving information during the school year, but they argue they were not made aware of the early-dismissal day on June 15.

Joseph and his parents filed a complaint claiming that Pleasantville Board of Education and the school principal negligently and recklessly failed to exercise their duty of reasonable supervision of Joseph, leading to the accident that caused his permanent injuries. The trial court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment, finding that even if Joseph's injuries were foreseeable, the school was not responsible for preventing harm that occurred hours after dismissal. The Appellate Division reversed, finding that it was foreseeable that a nine-year-old child, who was not met by an adult at dismissal, would remain unsupervised for hours and later be hurt. The panel concluded that there is a duty of care during dismissal, and it remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether defendants were negligent in allowing Joseph to leave school without an adult and, if so, whether their negligence was a proximate cause of Joseph's injuries.

The Supreme Court granted defendants' petition for certification. The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Justice Zazzali

Argued February 20, 2007

Nine-year-old Joseph Jerkins was dismissed from school on an early-dismissal day, walked off school grounds without an adult, and was struck by a car a few blocks from school later that afternoon. The accident paralyzed Joseph from the neck down. He and his family filed a complaint alleging that the school district and principal breached their duty of reasonable supervision with respect to Joseph's dismissal from school. The Law Division granted defendants' motion for summary judgment, finding that their duty of care did not apply to an accident that occurred hours after Joseph's dismissal and blocks from his school. The Appellate Division reversed, holding that schools have a duty of reasonable care to supervise children at dismissal, and remanded the matter for a trial to determine whether that duty was breached here.

In this appeal, we must determine whether schools have a duty of reasonable supervision during dismissal and, if so, we must define the scope of that duty. We find that because a school's duty to exercise reasonable care for the children in its custody is integral to our public education system, the duty does not summarily disappear when the school bell rings.

Accordingly, we hold that schools in New Jersey must exercise a duty of reasonable care for supervising students' safety at dismissal. The duty requires school districts to create a reasonable dismissal supervision policy, provide suitable notice to parents of that policy, and effectively comply with the policy and subsequent and appropriate parental requests concerning dismissal. We therefore substantially affirm the decision of the Appellate Division and remand the matter to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I.

A.

Joseph was a third-grade student at the South Main Street elementary school in Pleasantville, New Jersey. He transferred to the school in October of 2000. The school is located on a busy thoroughfare and is part of the Pleasantville School District, a "walking district" with no bus service. According to plaintiffs, Joseph regularly walked to and from school with either his adult brother, another family member, or a babysitter.

On the morning of June 15, 2001, an early-dismissal day, Charles Jerkins, Jr., Joseph's adult brother, walked Joseph to school. Joseph and his classmates were released from school at approximately 1:30 p.m. Joseph left school grounds unattended, played with friends, and, according to his father, may have gone swimming. Although the intervening events are unclear due to Joseph's inability to recall details of that afternoon, at 3:50 p.m., he was struck by a car, driven by Soweto Anderson and owned by Kemba Anderson, at an intersection several blocks from the school and in a different direction from his home. The accident severely injured Joseph, rendering him a quadriplegic. That same afternoon, Charles, Jr., arrived at the school at around 2:50 p.m., the regular pick-up time. He did not see Joseph at his normal meeting location and learned from a parent in the school lobby that there had been an early dismissal. Charles, Jr., proceeded to search for Joseph at school and at home, but later learned that Joseph had been injured in an automobile accident.

The school district had a four-page policy memorandum titled "Pupil Safety" that addressed a wide range of student safety topics, including supervision of students at dismissal time. The memorandum stated that "[t]he chief school administrator shall seek the cooperation of parents/guardians to prevent any children [from] being unsupervised on school property during lunch hour and during morning arrival and afternoon dismissal times." The memorandum did not, however, outline how dismissal supervision would be administered by the schools.

Instead, the school adhered to a practice that all school personnel supervise dismissal. On a typical school day, the school's five hundred students were dismissed at 2:50 p.m. Teachers escorted the students from their classrooms to designated exits at the sounding of the school bell, and "[t]he teacher[s] remain[ed] at their designated duty stations to insure that the children leave the school premises." According to the school principal, all school personnel -- including teachers, teachers' aides, and security personnel -- supervised dismissal to ensure that the children left school before the adults. The principal personally supervised early-dismissal days to "make sure that there were no children whose parents did not pick them up and they were still outside."

Because the school was in a "walking district," students walked home from school at dismissal unless they were picked up or were enrolled in the after-school program. If a student was instructed by a guardian not to walk home, but was not picked up, the student could ask a school official to contact a guardian. If the school could not reach the guardian, the child would be allowed to remain at the after-school program. Parents, on a case-by-case basis, also could call the school to provide instructions to the school if they anticipated being late. Joseph was not registered in the after-school program, and no guardian had requested that the school release him only to the custody of an adult.

Joseph's family members stated that they did not know that June 15 was a scheduled early-dismissal day. The school, however, identified numerous occasions when it informed students and their guardians of the school calendar, including the scheduled June 15 early dismissal. For example, the school provided a handbook, which included the district calendar, to all students at the start of the school year. Joseph's father registered Joseph in October, a month into the school year. According to the principal, parents who register students during the school year, such as Joseph's father, should receive the handbook together with other paperwork during the registration process. Although Joseph's father acknowledged that he received a registration packet when he registered Joseph, he did not remember receiving the school handbook. The handbook contained a form to be signed and returned by the student's parent or guardian confirming its receipt. The school claims that it discarded all the signed forms at the end of the academic year, and, therefore, could not produce a form signed by Joseph's guardian.

In addition to the student handbook, the school informed parents of the June 15 early dismissal by providing an annual calendar to parents at back-to-school night and distributing copies of the annual calendar to students to bring home. A calendar for June also was included in the June 2001 monthly newsletter, which was mailed to all Pleasantville households, provided to every student at school, and was available in the school's front office. Further, the school distributed a monthly schedule of events to each student to take home, and retained additional copies of the schedule at the school. Finally, near the end of the academic year, the school sent home a "reminder notice" with each student that reiterated the early-dismissal days for June. The father acknowledges receiving documentation from the school during the year, but does not recall whether he received a school newsletter, annual calendar, monthly calendar, or reminder notice.

Jerkins family members assert that they were not made aware of the early-dismissal days, including June 15, through any school communications. The family contends that it usually learned of the school schedule through Joseph. Joseph's brother stated that Joseph came home early from school on June 14 -- the day before the accident -- and told him and their father that there had been a half-day at school that day. However, Joseph's father and brother both stated that ...


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