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The law

The risk and costs of compensation claims is a source of worry to school leaders. The cases reaching court and succeeding, however, tend to be quite extreme and quite rare.

One successful claim arose after a school permitted a large student, aged over 15, to play for the under-15 rugby team. The boy injured another, who was 14, in a tackle. The 14-year-old duly sued. The court accepted it was not necessarily a breach of duty to permit a pupil to "play down" and that a 14 year-old of similar size could play in the under-15s. But the court ruled that because the school had given no evidence why the boy had to play down and the increased risk of injury to other players had not been considered, it was in breach of its duty and had caused the claimant's injury.

Another successful rugby claim involved a hooker who suffered a broken neck from a scrum collapse. The referee failed to take appropriate action despite the abnormal number of scrum collapses well over 20 in a match. While a school (if it is the employer) could be vicariously liable for negligent refereeing by a teacher, it is unlikely the claimant would have succeeded if there had been a "normal" number of scrum collapses and the referee had taken action in warning and penalising the players.

Schools may be deterred from holding parents' races on sports days due to fear of litigation. One case which did not succeed involved a claimant who ran into a brick wall just beyond the finishing line. The parent had previously suggested it might be sensible to race along the wall rather than into it. Lord Justice Buxton said the school was "fully entitled to expect [him] ... to look after [himself] and to adjust [his] actions to the particular terrain". Lord Justice Thorpe added that "part of the skill upon which success depended was deceleration before collision".

The Compensation Act 2006 allows the court to have regard to whether its finding could discourage or prevent desirable activities being undertaken.

When confronted with claim or allegation school leaders should alert their insurers and familiarise themselves with the terms of their insurance to make sure they do nothing which might invalidate their cover.

Simon Thomas

Solicitor, National Association of Head Teachers

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