Education Update, No. 3, July 2013: Field Trips Or Land Mines?

by Fisher Phillips
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There is no question that field trips are an essential part of strengthening the curriculum and creating an interactive learning experience for today’s students. In fact, most independent schools pride themselves on the unconventional and unique off-campus learning opportunities provided to their students on both day trips and extended travel. 

But before blindly embarking on these endeavors, it’s important for schools to properly safeguard themselves against liability in case of an unfortunate event. The truth is that these opportunities can come with a multi-million dollar price tag if proper safeguards are not put into place.

This lesson was recently learned by a Connecticut school after a $41.7 million verdict was entered against it when a jury found that it was negligent in not preventing a student from contracting encephalitis. Specifically, the jury found that the school was negligent in not warning the student and her parents that she would be traveling in the mountainous and forested terrain of China, and that these areas posed a risk for insect-transmitted diseases. 

The jury found that the school’s failure to warn the student prevented her from protecting herself from insect bites with repellents, long-sleeved shirts and pants, and by avoiding brushy undergrowth.  In addition, the chaperone allowed the student to hike down a mountain unaccompanied on the day the student likely contracted the disease.

While it’s impossible for any school to fully insulate itself from all possible liability  arising from field trips, through proper preparation and the implementation of certain precautions, schools can manage the risk and limit their exposure.

Review And Analyze Each Trip

First, schools should create and implement a process for reviewing the details of every proposed field trip to ensure that any and all possible risks have been assessed and addressed before the trip takes place, and communicated to the students and parents. The review process should include a review of the transportation utilized throughout the trip, any risks associated with the destination, the physical requirements of the trip, the manner in which the trip will be supervised, the manner of implementation of contingent emergency procedures, and whether the school’s insurance policy covers the excursion.

Conduct a thorough and independent investigation with respect to  each facet of the trip and any known dangers. The investigation should include checking with the State Department to determine whether there has been a travel advisory posted for the destination and checking with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine whether there are any health advisories for the destination. 

Share the investigative findings with the students and parents in a timely fashion.  In addition, inform participants of any and all precautions that could be taken to minimize those risks. Encourage parents to conduct their own independent research and share any concerns they may have with the school.

Implement And Enforce Strict Guidelines

It is imperative that every person participating on the trip has a complete understanding of the behavioral expectations and disciplinary procedures and consequences associated with the trip. In addition to making it clear that all school policies apply on every trip, you should also make participants aware of any trip-specific behavioral expectations (such as a no alcohol policy in countries where alcohol is legal) and the consequences for violating the rules (such as being escorted back to campus at the expense of the student).  Each student participating in the trip, as well as parents, should provide written acknowledgment of receipt so that they are less likely to challenge the enforcement of those rules in the event they are enforced.

Documentation

The most important safeguard to limit liability associated with injuries related to field trips is disclosure of all information related to the trip, including any possible safety risks, to parents and students. This should be done in the context of a release.  It is imperative that the parents of every student who participates in a field trip have executed a proper release. The more detailed and comprehensive the release, the more likely that it will be upheld in the unfortunate event of an injury to a student. 

At a minimum, the release should include: 1) the names of the parents and student; 2) the objective of the trip; 3) a detailed itinerary, including every location that the student will visit and any risks associated with same; 4) a list of every activity the student will engage in and the physical demands, if any, of each activity; 5) a list of any supplies the student should bring with him/her, including supplies that may minimize the exposure to any risks; 6) the transportation plan for the duration of the trip; 7) all anticipated costs and expenses; 8) a medical authorization; 9) agreement by the parents and student to adhere to all School policies and specific trip guidelines; and 10) a hold-harmless clause. 

In most cases, liability release forms will not prevent recovery for cases where gross negligence or willful misconduct is found on behalf of the School or its agents.  That is why it is prudent to train all adults who will serve as chaperones on all field trips.

Training

Every adult participant should be trained before participating in a school-sponsored trip.  The training should include a review of all applicable school policies and any trip-specific rules.  It should also include a review of the expectations for adult behavior on the trip, including, the prohibition of smoking and drinking, adult/student boundaries, and the need to act as a role model for the students. 

During the training, provide a detailed review of the itinerary, discuss any potential problems and how they should be handled, and go through the emergency contingency plans.  Every adult on the trip should be a benefit to the school and not an added risk.  Ensuring that they are properly trained helps the school achieve that goal.

While impossible to eliminate liability completely, managing the risk appropriately will help limit exposure.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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