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School Found Liable After Child Sneaks Onto Roof and Falls

(Update December 1, 2014 – the BC Court of Appeal upheld the below decision in reason released today)
Reasons for judgement were released today by the BC Supreme Court, New Westminster Registry, finding a school liable after a child was severely injured following a fall from the school roof.
In today’s case (Paquette v. School District No. 36) the 12 year old plaintiff was playing on school grounds after hours.  There was a tree in close proximity to the school.  He climbed the tree onto the roof of the school with a friend.  The vice principal heard them and yelled for them to get down.  Trying to go unidentified they attempted to climb down via a different route.   The Plaintiff “hung down from the edge of the roof, presumably placed his feet on the top of the wire fence, and safely jumped to the ground. Unfortunately Owen lost his grip on the roof. He slipped and then fell all the way onto a cement surface at the bottom of the stairwell, a total distance of about 20 or 21 feet.”
The Plaintiff sued for damages.  The School was found 75% at fault for having the tree in such close proximity to the school that kids could climb it.  In reaching this conclusion Madam Justice Sharma provided the following reasons:
[35]         First, most of the time the defendant knew people had been on the school roof, the defendant did not know how they got there. The lack of evidence about people having previously used the cherry tree to access the roof is, therefore, unsurprising. On one occasion the defendant did know that someone climbed a tree close to the school to access the roof. As Mr. Hurd rightfully conceded, a tree close to the school will tempt kids to climb it and get onto the roof. I conclude it was foreseeable that trees close to the school might be used to access the roof. It is simple common sense that if a child can get onto a roof, it is reasonably foreseeable that the child might fall off that roof and get badly injured.
[36]         Second, there was no evidence of “regular monitoring” of potential access points to the school roof. If there was at any time either a schedule of routine inspection or an assessment of trees proximate to the school that could potentially provide access to the roof, I would have expected that to be put into evidence as it would have clearly been material to this case.
[37]         Instead, the evidence demonstrates that if the defendant took any action in response to knowing youth had been on the roof, it was only reactive and ad hoc. This was despite the fact that there were numerous possible access points to the roof, as depicted in Mr. Delavalle’s photographs.
[38]         Mr. Hurd’s evidence establishes that this school had a problem with youth getting onto its roof. The numerous incidents he recalls confirm that this problem was known to the principal, teachers, maintenance workers, students and their families and others. Despite this, there is no evidence that the defendant required anyone to turn their mind to whether any trees were growing too close to the school roof and providing the access that allowed for this problem to persist.
[39]         In making these findings, I am mindful that the defendant is not expected to be perfect and that it would be impossible to completely prevent anyone getting on the school roof other than in an authorized fashion. However, taking into account all the circumstances of this case, it was unreasonable that the defendant allowed the cherry tree to grow so close to the school’s roof.
[40]         The defendant also argues it should not be held liable because most, if not all, other instances of people being on the roof occurred on the weekend and probably involved teenagers. The problem with that submission is the issue in this case is not about when the roof was accessed. Rather, the issue is whether the defendant’s actions in relation to possible roof access points were reasonable. The school is a permanent structure and its grounds are open to the public. When the roof was accessed is immaterial to the determination of whether the defendant acted reasonably in allowing the cherry tree to grow so close to the roof.
[41]         The same reasoning can be applied to the defendant’s argument that it was likely only older, non-students who had been on the roof previously. I note the evidence about the age of the people on the roof on weekends was obviously speculative, except for the two instances Mr. Hurd witnessed. It would be imprudent to place significant weight on this point when the evidence is not conclusive. But even if it was proven that all prior incidents involved teenagers, I do not find that that fact would support a conclusion that this accident was not foreseeable. If there are numerous instances of teenagers being on the roof, the elementary school students would know about it. This inference is confirmed by Mr. Hurd’s evidence that he received reports from his students about people on the roof during weekends. It is common sense that if students know that older youth have been on the roof, they may be tempted to do the same. More than one witness agreed that tree climbing is a normal part of childhood.
[42]         Mr. Hurd testified he was surprised that was how the boys got on the roof because he thought the tree was flimsy. As noted above, I have found the cherry tree had a study branch close to the roof. More importantly, in my view a reasonable person understands that a child might try climbing any tree close to the roof, flimsy or not. Owen was a 12 year old boy. Children act impulsively, with little forethought about the consequences of their actions and with limited insight. Put more simply, reasonable people foresee that children can and often do stupid things that are dangerous even when they know they shouldn’t.
[43]         I am not suggesting that the inherent nature of childhood means an occupier is liable for anything that a child might do. As always, each case must be assessed in context, reviewing all the circumstances.
[44]         Given the circumstances at this particular school, a reasonable person would foresee that the cherry tree (or any other tree in similar proximity to the school roof) might be used by kids to climb onto the roof. As such, the defendant is liable for not taking reasonable actions to prevent children accessing the school roof via the cherry tree.

bc injury law, Madam Justice Sharma, Paquette v. School District No. 36