For a student to succeed in an action in negligence against a teacher or school authority it is necessary for the student to establish:

  1. that the defendant owed a duty of care to the student;
  2. that the standard of care was breached; and
  3. that this breach has caused the student to suffer some form of damage.

The duty of care owed to a student by a teacher is that of a 'reasonable' teacher. This means that the duty of care owed is the duty one would expect from a hypothetical teacher with normal skills and attributes. This requires teachers to take reasonable care, and to avoid injuries to students which could reasonably be foreseen as possibly occurring. What is 'reasonable' and reasonably foreseeable will depend on the particular circumstances.

The nature of the special duty of care owed by teachers was discussed by the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia in the leading decision of Introvigne v Commonwealth of Australia (1980) 21 ALR 251.

Briefly, the facts of the case were as follows:

The plaintiff was a 15 year old school boy attending Woden Valley High School in the ACT.

At the time of his injury, all members of staff but one were attending an emergency staff meeting called as a result of the sudden death of the principal early that morning.

Only one teacher remained on playground duty. There were usually between 5 to 20 teachers on duty to supervise approximately 900 pupils.

Taking advantage of the lack of supervision, a group of boys, including the plaintiff, began to swing on the school flag pole. Part of the flag pole hit the plaintiff causing him serious head injuries.

The plaintiff sued, amongst others, the Commonwealth of Australia which was the relevant school authority. The Commonwealth did not, however, employ the teachers.

The plaintiff was unsuccessful at first instance but his appeal was allowed by the Full Court of the Federal Court. The Court found that the Commonwealth had been negligent in:

The Court then approved the following formulation of the duty of care:

'The duty of care owed by the teacher required only that he should take such measures as in all the circumstances were reasonable to prevent physical injury to the pupils. This duty not being one to ensure against injury, but to take reasonable care to prevent it, required no more than the taking of reasonable steps to protect the plaintiff against risks of injury, which ex-hypothesi the teacher should reasonably have foreseen.'

It is clear from the judgment that a teacher has a duty to take positive steps to maintain the safety of a pupil against risks he or she should reasonably have foreseen. The duty is not, however, so high as to require the teacher to ensure that injury does not occur. A teacher will only be negligent if he or she does not take reasonable care.

The duty of care will exist where students are in the playground, classroom, engaging in school activities or sports, or involved in excursions or camps. The key requirement is that the school purports to exercise authority over the behaviour of children: Geyer v Downs (1978) 17 ALR 408. Once the student/ teacher relationship exists, teachers and school authorities will need to carefully plan adequate supervision of students.

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