OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — The Ferndale School District will be included in a lawsuit filed by the family of a student who died after an SUV crashed into a high school class in June 2015, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Whether the school district is liable in the student’s death will now become a question for a jury as the civil case heads back to Whatcom County Superior Court, the Bellingham Herald reported.
William Jeffrey Klein, 39, admitted he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into the group of students who were on an unauthorized class field trip in June 2015. Klein was acquitted in May 2016 of all criminal charges relating to the accident near Ferndale.
Gabriel Lewis Anderson, 15, and Shane Lawrence Ormiston, 18, both of Ferndale, died at the scene and Michael “Andy” Brewster, then 17, of Custer and Kole A. Randall, then 17, of Ferndale were injured, according to Whatcom County Superior Court records.
Anderson’s parents filed a civil wrongful death suit on Dec. 3, 2015, against Klein and the Ferndale School District. The lawsuit claims Windward High School gym teacher Robert “Evan” Ritchie failed to follow district protocols when he took his class on an afternoon walk along Smith Road without adequate supervision, putting students in danger.
Because Ritchie was a district employee acting in his official duties, the school district is liable, the lawsuit said. The Ferndale School District admitted that the walk violated district protocols, but said the incident was solely caused by Klein’s negligence.
A Whatcom Superior Court judge agreed with the school district and the district was removed from the lawsuit Jan. 9, 2019. Anderson’s family appealed that decision.
The Court of Appeals ruled in 2020, that the Whatcom County Superior Court erred in determining whether the collision that killed Anderson was foreseeable, and thus whether the district had a duty to prevent it. The Whatcom court had ruled the collision was not reasonably foreseeable and so the district didn’t have a duty to take steps to prevent it, according to court records.
The Court of Appeals ruling stated that the Whatcom court should have based its ruling not on the specific harm that happened, but on the “general field of danger created when Ferndale staff took Anderson off campus for a walk along a public roadway,” according to court records.
In its Thursday decision, the state Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeals’ ruling reversing the Whatcom court’s decision to dismiss the school district from the lawsuit. The state Supreme Court ruled that there are material issues of fact whether the school district owed a duty to its students and how far that duty extends, the court records show.
The state high court determined that Anderson’s family “presented sufficient evidence … establishing a factual question as to whether Ferndale’s act of taking the student off-campus led to the accident,” the Supreme Court ruling states.
A special relationship exists where school districts may be held liable for off-campus harms suffered by students even if the harm is caused by the act of a third party. Because students are involuntarily subjected to a school district’s control and rules, the district must take steps to protect students against reasonably foreseeable acts of third parties, the court records state.