Prior Arguments Between Students? Don’t Let Them Wrestle During Gym Class (NY)

In Carter v. Uniondale Union Free School District, middle student Alonzo Carter, fractured his arm when another student, Kevon Hennit slammed him to the ground during a wrestling match in gym class.  Carter filed suit against the school district, claiming it was negligent in its supervision and control of the students.  After depositions, the school district moved for summary judgment arguing that it had no prior notice of any incidents between the boys and that Carter had voluntarily assumed the risk of injury.

Under New York law, in order to find that the school district breached its duty to provide adequate supervision in the context of injuries caused by the acts of fellow students, Carter had to demonstrate that the school had sufficiently specific knowledge or notice of the dangerous conduct that caused the injury, i.e., that Hennit’s acts could reasonably have been anticipated.

In denying the motion, the court relied on testimony from sixth grade guidance counselor, Robert Rivas, and math teacher Leonard Florentino, who testified that there had been prior verbal and physical confrontations between the boys.  Rivas further testified that Florentino advised him that Hennit had struck Carter several weeks earlier, following which Rivas held meetings with the boys and their parents wherein he advised the boys to stop bothering each other.  Additionally, the court noted that Carter had filled out a separate Student Standard form prior to the accident wherein he complained that Hennit had threatened to put his hands on him.  Based on these incidents, the court concluded that the school district had prior actual notice of similar conduct between the students and, as such, there was an issue of fact exists as to whether the school district reasonably could have known that the subject incident would occur.

Finally, the court discounted the assumption of risk argument, finding that while wrestling is an inherently violent sport and Carter had been instructed not to reach out his arm while falling, it was unreasonable for the gym teacher to assume that all students would follow his instructions precisely.  Even though the district contended that Carter voluntarily took part in the wresting match and picked Hennit as his partner, this was a required gym class and the school had sufficient notice that the students should not have been allowed to wrestle one another.

Special thanks to Michael Nunley for his contributions to this post.  For more information, please contact Nicole Y. Brown at nbrown@wcmlaw.com.