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Field Trip Chaperone Not Liable for Drowned Child

CHICAGO (CN) - Parents of a Wisconsin child who drowned during a field trip cannot seek damages under federal law from the child's school district, the 7th Circuit ruled.

In June 2010, seventh-grade students at Roosevelt Middle School took a trip to Mauthe Lake on the last day of the school year.

The trip was voluntary and required parents to sign permission slips authorizing their children to "play in the water." Assistant Principal Maribeth Gosz planned the trip, with approval from Principal Linda Estes.

The southeastern Wisconsin lake has a maximum depth of 23 feet and includes a public beach. No lifeguard was on duty to supervise the 92 students.

Though Milwaukee Public School District rules forbid swimming on field trips unless a lifeguard is present, Gosz and another teacher chaperone let the students go in the water.

Twelve-year-old Kamonie Slade made it about 100 feet from shore when either the current or the slope of the lake floor drew him under the water. Slade was a poor swimmer and drowned, never leaving the lake's designated swimming area.

His parents and estate filed suit, claiming that Wisconsin had deprived the child of his life in violation of the 14th Amendment. But U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa granted summary judgment to the defendants on their federal law claims, declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state-law claims.

A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit affirmed last week.

The 13-page opinion includes extensive analysis of the elements of a 14th Amendment claim.

"A state does not deprive a person of his life in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment merely by failing to prevent his dying, but does violate the amendment if the death was caused by the reckless act by an employee of the state acting within the scope of his or her employment," Judge Richard Posner wrote for the court.

To incur liability under federal law, Gosz would have had to act recklessly, rather than simply negligently. Holding government bodies liable for negligence would drastically increase the number of cases and court involvement, according to the ruling.

"The Milwaukee Public School District could have ... assigned three or four fulltime staffers to the planning of trips or have hired a specialist to audit every proposed trip to ensure full compliance with all federal, state, local, and district laws and regulations; such measures might well have saved Kamonie's life," Posner wrote.

"But like all school districts the Milwaukee district had to decide how many resources to allocate to safety on field trips, given budgetary limits and competing claims on its resources," he added. "The federal courts are not in a position to second-guess such judgments, except perhaps in the most extreme circumstances."

Because Gosz did not know that Slade was a poor swimmer, and did not deliberately endanger his life, she was merely negligent.

"Had Kamonie told Gosz that although he was a poor swimmer he was going to try to swim across the lake, and she had replied 'proceed at your own risk,' her conduct would have been reckless endangerment; for she had brought him to a place of danger and he was in her charge yet she would be virtually daring him to risk his life. That is not this case," Posner wrote.

Slade's family may still have a viable state law negligence claim against Gosz, as well as Estes and the district, according to the ruling. Wisconsin law caps damages at $50,000 per defendant, however, limiting potential recovery to $150,000.

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