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LACEY STANFIELD, ON BEHALF OF HER MINOR CHILD, BRANTLEY LEBLANC v. LAFOURCHE PARISH SCHOOL BOARD AND SHELLY GUIDROZ
Plaintiff appeals from a judgment granting a motion for summary judgment in favor of defendants, dismissing plaintiff's suit with prejudice. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.
FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On May 7, 2018, when Brantley LeBlanc was four-years old, he injured a finger on his right hand while he was a student in Shelly Guidroz's pre-kindergarten (pre-K) class at North Larose Elementary School. Brantley's mother, Lacey Stanfield, filed suit against Ms. Guidroz and the Lafourche Parish School Board, Ms. Guidroz's employer and the owner/operator of North Larose Elementary School, seeking damages for Brantley's injuries.
The incident occurred while Ms. Guidroz's pre-K class of 19 students was outside for recess, in an area that was accessible from Ms. Guidroz's classroom. Brantley and a male classmate were allowed to go inside together to use the restroom, while Ms. Guidroz and a paraprofessional remained outside to supervise the remaining 17 students. Ms. Guidroz estimated that she did not have “visual contact” with Brantley and his classmate for a couple of minutes, but she remained close enough to “listen for the children in the [restroom].” While the boys were inside, Brantley's finger was caught in the “handle side” of a door. Although the record contains no eyewitness account of what occurred, Brantley told Ms. Stanfield that his classmate “went to close the door” as they were exiting the restroom, and Brantley “was trying to get out.” As Brantley tried to open the door, his hand “got smashed into it and he had to pull his hand out.” Brantley's classmate admitted to Ms. Guidroz that he closed the door on Brantley.
The restroom was in a hallway, which had a classroom on each end. One classroom belonged to Ms. Guidroz. There were doors at the entrances of the girls’ and boys’ restrooms, and a door separating the hallway and Ms. Guidroz's classroom. This door - the one between the hallway and Ms. Guidroz's classroom - was the door involved in Brantley's incident.
The restroom and hallway doors remained open unless closed by an adult. At the beginning of the school year, Ms. Guidroz's students were taught that they were not allowed to close the doors without permission and that there would be consequences if they broke the rule. By the end of the school year, when this incident occurred, the students were accustomed to the rule.
Pertinent to this appeal, Ms. Stanfield alleged that the defendants failed to provide Brantley with “proper and safe supervision.”1 The defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment in February 2020, seeking to dismiss Ms. Stanfield's suit with prejudice. The defendants maintained that the undisputed facts demonstrated that Ms. Stanfield could not meet her burden of proving that the defendants breached their duty to provide reasonable supervision. La. C.C.P. art. 966(D)(1); Wallmuth v. Rapides Parish School Board, 2001-1779, 2001-1780 (La. 4/3/02), 813 So.2d 341, 346.
Ms. Stanfield opposed the motion, pertinently arguing that Ms. Guidroz breached her duty to Brantley by allowing him to go to the restroom with another student without adult supervision. According to Ms. Stanfield, Ms. Guidroz mistakenly believed that the student/teacher ratio was 10/1, which is why the boys were allowed to go to the restroom alone - to avoid leaving the remaining 17 students outside, unsupervised, in breach of the purported 10/1 ratio. However, Louisiana law and Lafourche Parish School Board policy require a 21/1 student/teacher ratio and a 10/1 student/adult staff ratio. Ms. Stanfield maintained that Ms. Guidroz could have remained on the playground with the students while the paraprofessional escorted the boys to the restroom. Thus, by leaving Brantley and his classmate unsupervised, Ms. Guidroz allegedly breached the ratio requirements, resulting in a 2/0 student/teacher ratio for Brantley and his classmate.
The trial court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment at the conclusion of a contradictory hearing held in June 2020. A written judgment in conformity with this ruling was signed on June 29, 2020, dismissing Ms. Stanfield's claims with prejudice. In response to Ms. Stanfield's request, the trial court issued written reasons for judgment.2 The trial court concluded that the only way this accident could have been prevented was if Ms. Guidroz had been in the restroom and in the path of the door to block it. “There would not have been time to stop this near spontaneous act from any measurable distance.” The law does not require “this type of personal assistance.” The trial court also concluded that it was not foreseeable that a normal restroom trip would involve the “slamming of the door” in such a way that would injure Brantley.
In this appeal, Ms. Stanfield argues that the trial court erred by finding this incident could not have been prevented unless Ms. Guidroz was standing in the path of the door, that Ms. Guidroz would have to abandon the other students to supervise Brantley, and that the incident was unforeseen. Ms. Stanfield asserts that the trial court weighed evidence and improperly applied the summary judgment standard by drawing inferences and construing them in defendants’ favor. Thus, Ms. Stanfield asserts that the judgment should be reversed.
LAW AND ANALYSIS
Summary Judgment Standard and Standard of Review
A motion for summary judgment is a procedural device used to avoid a fullscale trial when there is no genuine issue of material fact. Hernandez v. Livingston Parish School Board, 2021-0764 (La. App. 1st Cir. 3/30/22), 341 So.3d 680, 683. After an opportunity for adequate discovery, a motion for summary judgment shall be granted if the motion, memorandum, and supporting documents show that there is no genuine issue as to material fact and that the mover is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. La. C.C.P. art. 966(A)(3).
The mover bears the initial burden of proof on the motion for summary judgment. However, if the mover will not bear the burden of proof at trial on the issue that is before the court on the motion for summary judgment, the mover's burden on the motion does not require him to negate all essential elements of the adverse party's claim, action, or defense, but rather to point out to the court the absence of factual support for one or more elements essential to the adverse party's claim, action, or defense. Once this is done, the burden shifts to the adverse party to produce factual support sufficient to establish the existence of a genuine issue of material fact or that the mover is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law. La. C.C.P. art. 966(D)(1). If the non-moving party fails to produce factual support in opposition sufficient to establish that he or she will be able to satisfy his or her evidentiary burden of proof at trial, Article 966(D)(1) mandates the motion for summary judgment be granted. Flynn v. Anytime Fitness, LLC, 2022-0742 (La. App. 1st Cir. 12/29/22) ___ So.3d ___, 2022 WL 17982922, *2, writ denied, 2023-00108 (La. 4/4/23) ___ So.3d ___, 2023 WL 2768954.
Appellate courts review evidence de novo using the same criteria that govern the trial court's determination of whether summary judgment is appropriate. Thus, appellate courts ask the same questions: is there any genuine issue of material fact and is the mover entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Because it is the applicable substantive law that determines materiality, whether a particular fact in dispute is material can be seen only in light of the substantive law applicable to the case. Hernandez, 341 So.3d at 683.
Failure to Supervise
To establish a claim against a school board for failure to adequately supervise the safety of its students, a plaintiff must prove: (1) negligence on the part of the school board, its agents, or teachers in providing supervision; (2) a causal connection between the lack of supervision and the accident; and (3) that the risk of unreasonable injury was foreseeable, constructively or actually known, and preventable if a requisite degree of supervision had been exercised. Hernandez, 341 So.3d at 684; Pugh v. St. Tammany Parish School Board, 2007-1856 (La. App. 1st Cir. 8/21/08), 994 So.2d 95, 98, writ denied, 2008-2316 (La. 11/21/08), 996 So.2d 1113.
It is well-settled that a school board, through its teachers, owes a duty to provide reasonable, competent supervision appropriate to the age of the children and the attendant circumstances. “In the absence of a special, dangerous condition, a school board is under no duty to supervise all movements of all children at all times.” Narcisse v. Continental Insurance Co., 419 So.2d 13, 16 (La. App. 3rd Cir. 1982) (first grader was injured when a classmate shut a “heavy” door on his thumb while the teacher had temporarily stepped out of the classroom; school board found not liable after plaintiff failed to prove the door presented an unreasonably dangerous condition). There is no evidence in the record that the door involved in Brantley's incident presented an unreasonably dangerous condition; thus, Ms. Guidroz and the School Board had no duty to supervise all movements of the children at all times. See Narcisse, 419 So.3d at 16. Constant supervision of all students is not possible nor required for educators to discharge their duty to provide adequate supervision. Wallmuth, 813 So.2d at 346. A school board is not liable for spontaneous actions by children that would not have been preventable absent constant supervision. Carter ex rel. Carter v. East St. John Elementary School, 12-174 (La. App. 5th Cir. 11/13/12), 105 So.3d 856, 860.
On appeal, Ms. Stanfield makes arguments based on the benefit of hindsight and proposes hypothetical concerning what could have been done differently. For instance, Ms. Stanfield argues that Ms. Guidroz could have allowed the paraprofessional to escort Brantley and his classmate to the restroom while she supervised the remaining students outside. Louisiana law recognizes, “It is always easier to come up with a better plan after the accident. To say that a better plan of supervision would have prevented the accident is too speculative because an accident can happen within a matter of a few seconds when, for example, a supervisor is correcting another child.” Glankler v. Rapides Parish School Board, 610 So.2d 1020, 1032 (La. App. 3d Cir. 1992), writ denied, 614 So.2d 78 (La. 1993).
Ms. Stanfield further suggests that, if the boys knew they were being observed by Ms. Guidroz or the paraprofessional, “the instinct for mischief would have been forestalled” and Brantley's classmate “may have been prevented from touching the door in the first place.” According to Ms. Stanfield, the boys’ awareness that they were being monitored “could affect behavior.” Contrary to Ms. Stanfield's assertion, this is not a “reasonable inference” to be drawn from the evidence in the non-moving party's favor. Instead, her arguments are nothing more than conclusory allegations, improbable inferences, and unsupported speculation. Dragna v. Terrytown Cafe, Inc., 22-239 (La. App. 5th Cir. 10/5/22), 355 So.3d 8, 14 (“Even if contained in a deposition, such inferences, allegations, and speculation are not sufficient to satisfy the opponent's burden of proof.”) “Although factual inferences reasonably drawn from the evidence must be construed in favor of the party opposing the motion, mere conclusory allegations, improbable inferences, and unsupported speculation will not support a finding of a genuine issue of material fact.” Salvador v. Main Street Family Pharmacy, L.L.C., 2017-1757 (La. App. 1st Cir. 6/4/18), 251 So.3d 1107, 1112.
Finally, the alternative scenarios or hypothetical offered by Ms. Stanfield are premised on providing constant supervision, which, as we have found, was not required.3 Ms. Stanfield's arguments support, rather than contradict, the conclusion that Brantley's incident could not have been prevented unless Ms. Guidroz or the paraprofessional escorted the boys to the restroom or stood in the path of the door. During her deposition, Ms. Guidroz testified that she could not have prevented the incident if she was sitting at her desk in her classroom when it occurred, even though the door at issue was in her classroom.
Ms. Stanfield next asserts that Brantley's incident was foreseeable because two prior incidents involving doors occurred at the school, Ms. Guidroz had a “specific rule in place” concerning the door, and she had previously reprimanded students for breaking the rule. We disagree.
The evidence presented by Ms. Stanfield reflects that neither prior incident involved the door at issue, and both occurred under different circumstances. Although Ms. Guidroz implemented the “don't close the door” rule in 2014, in part, to avoid injury to a child's finger, the rule proved successful. Ms. Guidroz estimated that she had previously reprimanded students for closing the door on only two occasions during the entire school year. This was the first “smashed finger” incident involving a door in Ms. Guidroz's classroom since she began using this room in 2014, although she allowed students to use the restroom during recess, unaccompanied and in pairs, at least once a day throughout the school year. Ms. Guidroz also estimated that her class goes to the restroom four times a day.
Additionally, neither Brantley nor his classmate had presented behavioral problems, and both had followed the “don't close the door” rule throughout the school year. There was no indication or reason to believe that either child would disobey Ms. Guidroz's rule on the date of Brantley's incident. In Patterson v. Orleans Parish School Board, 461 So.2d 386, 387 (La. App. 4th Cir. 1984), the teacher instructed her seven-year-old student not to put his hand between the door and the door frame. Moments later, the student's fingers were smashed in the same door. The court of appeal affirmed the trial court's finding that it was not foreseeable that the child would disobey his teacher and return to the door, where he would be pushed by another student, causing him to place his fingers on the same door frame. This student's conduct could only have been prevented by “constant and unremitting scrutiny.” Patterson, 461 So.2d at 387.
After a de novo review of the summary judgment evidence, making all reasonable inferences in Ms. Stanfield's favor, we conclude that defendants satisfied their burden of proving that Ms. Stanfield will be unable to satisfy several elements of her burden of proof at trial. La. C.C.P. art. 966(D)(1). Thereafter, the burden shifted to Ms. Stanfield, who failed to produce factual support sufficient to establish the existence of a genuine issue of material fact or that defendants are not entitled to judgment as a matter of law. La. C.C.P. art. 966(D)(1). Thus, we find that summary judgment was properly granted in the defendants’ favor.
For the forgoing reasons, the June 29, 2020 judgment granting the motion for summary judgment filed by the Lafourche Parish School Board and Shelly Guidroz is affirmed. All costs of this appeal are assessed against Lacey Stanfield.
1. Ms. Stanfield also alleged that the defendants were negligent in failing to provide a safe restroom and in failing to call for an ambulance following Brantley's injury. These claims were dismissed in the judgment granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, but Ms. Stanfield does not reassert these arguments on appeal or allege that the trial court erred by dismissing these negligence claims. Therefore, we do not address these issues. See Uniform Rule of Louisiana Courts of Appeal—Rule 1.3.
2. The notice of judgment was mailed to the parties on June 30, 2020, and Ms. Stanfield timely filed a motion and order for devolutive appeal on July 6, 2020. For reasons unclear from the record, the order granting the appeal was not signed until September 29, 2022, the same date the trial court signed the reasons for judgment.
3. Ms. Stanfield further asserts that the incident was foreseeable because Ms. Guidroz was aware, through her teacher education, that boys “tend to have a more rambunctious behavior.” However, when asked whether boys are more likely to get into trouble or be rambunctious when together, Ms. Guidroz testified that “[e]very child is unique” and different. Ms. Stanfield cites no legal authority for imposing a different duty of supervision based on the child's biological sex, and we decline to create such a distinction.
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Docket No: 2022 CA 1196
Decided: April 14, 2023
Court: Court of Appeal of Louisiana, First Circuit.
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