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Teacher poisoned by pupil fails to challenge colleagues discretion

31 July 2009
Earlier this month, the Court found that a teacher who gave classroom keys to a pupil for a short period, simply for the purposes of obtaining some folders, was not negligent even though one of the pupils had, unbeknownst to the teacher, added whiteboard cleaning fluid to a colleagues bottle of water. Browne Jacobson was instructed to represent the local authority.

The facts

A teacher brought a claim against Newham Council after a school girl added whiteboard cleaning fluid to a bottle of drinking water she kept in her desk. Whilst the claimant had been away from school for a day, a colleague, Ms P, had given three pupils the keys to access an unoccupied classroom for a short time to retrieve some study material. When in the room, one of the pupils tampered with the claimants water bottle. When the claimant returned to her classroom she drank the contaminated water from the bottle and suffered immediate physical injuries and, later, significant psychological consequences. She brought a claim against the local authority alleging that her colleague, Ms P, had negligently allowed the three pupils unsupervised access to the classroom, contrary to established practice.

The teacher claimed that, but for the incident, she would have become a Head Teacher by 2012, and claimed loss of earnings of nearly £700,000.

The findings

Although the Judge emphasised that he did not condone the "disgraceful behaviour" of the pupil responsible, he found that the girl who tampered with the water bottle did not set out to injure the claimant, but rather indulged in a foolish prank. It was reasonably foreseeable that pupils might get up to mischief if granted access to a school room, even though the precise form of mischievous behaviour might be not be reasonably foreseeable. The Judge also found that a duty of care was owed by the local authority to the claimant, to take such precautions as were reasonable in all the circumstances to minimise the risk to teachers of such an injury.

The school had a general practice of disallowing students into unoccupied classrooms, but this practice was subject to the teachers discretion. The Judge found that it would be "absurd" to suggest that teachers should not be able to exercise their discretion to grant pupils access to an unoccupied classroom for a short period for the purposes of retrieving materials. In this case, Ms P had no reason to suspect that the poisoner was likely to do what she did. In the circumstances, it could not be said that Ms P was negligent.

He also discussed the claim for significant loss of earnings, finding that it was unlikely the claimant would have continued as a secondary teacher at all due to stress. There had been lack of candour on the part of the claimant, for example, she had not divulged to the medical experts or her solicitors her history of psychological illness. It therefore followed that in some respects, the claimant was not credible. Had her claim been successful, the Judge would have awarded just £40,000.

The claimants solicitors had put in a schedule of legal costs to trial that were three times those of the local authority. These are not recoverable from the council. Furthermore, as she lost, the claimant will now be liable to pay the councils costs.

Practice points

  • In todays litigious climate teachers would not be blamed for thinking they must do everything possible to exclude all risks to themselves and to their colleagues. This is not the case. In this case, it was found that the school quite properly prevented pupils having unlimited access to classrooms. The risk of theft or vandalism was obvious. However, all Ms P did was to give keys to girls whose character she had no reason to doubt, simply for the purposes of picking up some folders and return. As the Judge put it "…it would in my view be absurd to suggest that teachers should not have a discretion to ask pupils to pop along a corridor to get something from another classroom".
  • Here there was no written policy about the locking of classrooms, although the Judge found the schools practice of disallowing students access to unoccupied classrooms, subject to the teachers discretion to make exceptions, was sensible. We suggest that schools draw up well publicised policies for the locking of rooms and the handing out of keys. The policies can provide guidance to teachers as to whether, and when, they entrust keys to students, and should make it clear that professionals may exercise their discretion in a common sense way.
  • We believe that one of the reasons this case was successfully defended was the commitment and professionalism of the school and its teachers. They worked hard to make sure all relevant documents were located and to give honest accounts of their involvement with the claimant and the pupils concerned.
  • Although the claimant (or her insurers) are due to pay the councils legal costs, the school will not be compensated for the time and energy its staff expended on dealing with this case.

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