In most personal injury cases, one person's careless or negligent action is the direct cause of another person's injury. But in one subset of personal injury law, the lack of proper supervision is an indirect but real cause (legally speaking) of an injury. These kinds of "negligent supervision" claims typically arise in one of three settings:
Given the similarities of negligent supervision claims in the childcare and long-term care settings, this article will focus on these two kinds of cases.
Negligent supervision is a fault or liability theory that can be utilized when a care provider falls short of meeting a legal duty to provide adequate supervision to those under his or her charge in a particular situation, and some kind of foreseeable harm results.
In a daycare, this might apply to a care provider who is absorbed in his phone instead of paying attention to a group of children on a playground, one of whom engages in dangerous play on a structure before suffering a preventable injury.
In a nursing home, negligent supervision might apply to an orderly who, instead of keeping an eye on a resident who requires assistance while walking, decides to chat with a coworker in another area of the nursing home. Frustrated, the unsupervised resident tries crossing a common area alone, falls, and breaks a hip.
As the term indicates, negligent supervision claims rely on the fault theory of negligence, which means that some slight variation of the following three elements usually needs to be established:
Caregivers in a long-term or childcare facility have the duty to supervise and care for children and residents in their charge. The precise duty may be set forth by a state or federal law, by contract—or by court decisions handed down over the years. For instance, a state regulation might establish how a daycare must handle children's food. Or an assisted living care contract might set out the number of visits/check-ins a nursing assistant must make with a particular resident each day.
Learn more about the legal duty of care in injury cases.
"Breach" refers to a caregiver's failure to provide a legally-mandated level of reasonable care. This could occur if a nurse does not follow appropriate protocols during the dispensing of medications. Or a daycare worker takes a restroom break without arranging for cover from a co-worker, and a child leaves a play area and wanders down the street.
It's important to note that a caregiver's duty is not absolute. The standard of care that's required will depend on what's reasonable under the circumstances, given factors such as the number of students/patients/residents in the caregiver's charge, facility protocol, and the foreseeability of the incident or activity that led to the injury. For example, a caregiver or care facility will have a duty to routinely inspect furniture and equipment for wear and tear, but if a hidden defect in an appliance or play structure leads to an injury, that doesn't mean the caregiver/facility will be found liable (a product liability claim against the manufacturer of the defective appliance/structure might be the proper legal remedy here.)
This is where things can get a little complicated. That's because in order to succeed in a negligent supervision claim, a plaintiff must prove that the breach of duty is the cause of the harm suffered. That usually means establishing two kinds of causation:
In this hypothetical, not only did the daycare worker's actions actually cause the child's injury, but the daycare worker's actions were also the proximate cause. That's because it's foreseeable that leaving a dangerous chemical within easy reach of a young child could lead to accidental ingestion.
Changing the facts around a little, let's now assume that instead of leaving the cleaner on a table in the play area, the daycare worker put it in a locked cabinet. However, due to an unknown defect, the locking mechanism failed to engage. Is the daycare worker's action still the proximate cause of the child's injuries if the child somehow finds the cleaning solution in the kitchen and manages to drink it? Assuming there is no specific daycare law or regulation that says otherwise, probably not. That's because it was not foreseeable for the daycare worker to anticipate that the cabinet would have a faulty lock.
If you're thinking about pursing a personal injury claim based on harm that occurred while a child or elderly person should have been better supervised, it might be time to discuss your situation (and your options) with a personal injury lawyer.