2021 has been challenging for schools, with COVID-19−related restrictions and lockdowns, and the ongoing issue surrounding vaccination of staff and students. Apart from COVID, 2021 has also seen some interesting legal cases that contain some key reminders for all schools to take into the 2022 school year.
In Mattock v State of New South Wales (NSW Department of Education) (No 2)  NSWSC 1045, a student, Daniel Mattock, sued his PE teacher and his school, the Eden Marine High School, for negligence after he suffered a head injury during a hybrid game of touch football and rugby league. While the claim was unsuccessful, the potential risk to the school was just under $580,000 in damages and the decision provides some important lessons for schools.
The game and the injury
- The game was started by students competing for a ball in the air. Daniel collided with another student when they both jumped to intercept the ball.
- After assessment of Daniel for concussion and head injury, the PE teacher concluded he was dazed but not seriously injured and sent him to the first aid office.
- The first aid officer did not conduct any tests after an initial assessment and did not call an ambulance. The officer did offer to call Daniel’s mother, but he said she would be out of range and that he would get the bus home.
- Daniel fell backwards down the stairs of the bus, and as a result the driver did not let him travel home on the bus. Daniel then wandered toward the beach, where his friends found him and called his mother, who drove him to the hospital.
- Daniel’s mother claimed he had passed out in the car, had slurred speech and found it difficult to walk. He had multiple seizures after the accident, but significant testing found no abnormalities.
The student’s claim brought against the school and teacher
- The way the game was started presented a foreseeable and not insignificant risk of harm to students.
- Staff should have taken precautions to protect the students.
- Daniel’s injuries were caused by the PE teacher’s negligence.
- The school failed to provide adequate first aid care post-injury .
The Court’s findings
- While schools have a duty of care in relation to students, they are not absolutely liable for any injuries suffered by students while under the supervision of teachers.
- The fact that a serious injury may occur while students are playing a game at school will not automatically result in a finding that a breach of duty has occurred. Every sport carries a foreseeable risk of injury. Games that involve potential collision are ordinarily part of the school curriculum even though they can lead to injury.
- Although the risk was foreseeable, the risk of physical harm was insignificant.
- The school did not breach its duty of care to Daniel. Although there was a possibility that accidental contact could occur, the football game was controlled, properly supervised, and conducted in a safe manner.
- Daniel had had experience playing rugby league since he was young. A reasonable student in his position would have considered the probability of harm when attempting to catch the ball and whether they would be injured.
If schools include contact sport in their curriculum, they need to be sure that procedures are in place to make sure the games are adequately controlled, supervised and conduced in a safe manner. Schools should also ensure that protocols are in place to ensure proper assessment is carried out in the case of head injury, and that students are monitored until collected by their parents.
How Can We Help?
The case described above is a key reminder for schools to check their sport procedures, including whether the supervising teachers are properly trained and know what to do in case of injury. Get in touch with the team at Snedden Hall & Gallop on 02 6285 8000 or by email to discuss further.