Can Student Hit by Car sue Village of Waterloo, New York, or the Waterloo School District for Failure to Provide Sidewalks for School Children?

schoolsign.jpgThe Geneva Finger Lakes Times ran a story yesterday about a car-on-pedestrian accident in Waterloo (Seneca County). The story was of interest to me because I pass through Waterloo twice a day on my way from my home in Geneva to my office in Auburn. Here’s what happened:

On January 11, a vehicle struck a 14-year-old student on Stark Street. For at least two years, the child’s mother had been one of several parents voicing (to put it mildly) concerns to local officials about the lack of sidewalks for school children who walk to and from school in that area. The parents say the Village of Waterloo and School officials merely shrugged their shoulders and pointed their finger at each other or at other entities. The Village of Waterloo owns the roadway in the area in question. Everyone, including the Village, appears to agree there is a safety concern with children walking to and from school in that area.

As I read the article, I asked myself, “who can be held accountable for this injury in court”? And “who can be held liable for future accidents if nothing is done”? I answered my own questions, and now it’s your turn. Readers, I give you two choices: Who can be held liable? (1) the Waterloo School Disctrict or (2) The Village of Waterloo?

Answer: (drum roll please . . . ): It’s number 2, the Village.

Why not number 1? Well, a school district, including the Waterloo School District, cannot generally be held responsible for the safety of its students once they are released from school and leave school premises. The exception is if the school district somehow created the off-premises danger that caused the injury, which does not appear to be the case here.

Instead, here the Village owns and controls the road in the problem area. Therefore, providing sidewalks for pedestrian safety in that area is the Village’s responsibility.

The Village and its lawyers would be well advised to read the New York Court of Appeals (highest court in New York State) case of Ernest v. Red Creek Cent. School Dist., 93 N.Y.2d 664 (1999), where it was held that Wayne County, who owned and controlled the road just outside the village of Wolcott, near a school, could be held liable for failing to install sidewalks for school children’s use if there was no “reasonable basis for the failure to act and the failure to do so was a contributing cause of an accident”. In that case, as in this case, the entity who owned the roadway (there, Wayne County, here, the Village of Waterloo) had been warned for years that sidewalks were needed for the safe passage of school children. There, as here, parents and others had pleaded with the authorities to build sidewalks, but those pleas were ignored. In the Wayne County case, a seriously injured student, hit by a car, sued the County for its failure to install sidewalks, and the Court gave the injured student a green light to go to trial. Fortunately, in Waterloo, the lack of sidewalks has caused only one minor injury so far.

Will the Village of Waterloo wait for a SERIOUS injury before it does the right thing? Let’s hope not.

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