Could This Happen to You?

January 2009

XYZ School District owns an old school building that has been turned over to a community organization for use as a community center. A neighborhood mother who was accompanying her children to the old school turned recreational facility had attempted to find the restroom in the old building. As she opened the door to what appeared to be the restroom in the dim lighting, she fell down a flight of stairs just beyond the door. Her neck was broken and she is now a paraplegic.

The premises liability claim was submitted to TNRMT for resolution. After investigation, it was determined that negligent maintenance of electrical wiring and lights were the proximate cause of the accident. The claim will cost well over $1 million for lifetime care of the injured woman.

Did this claim really happen? No, not yet. But many similar claims have occurred because of burned out light bulbs, wet floors and many other hazards that we are all too familiar with. These claims can be reduced or eliminated with proper attention to maintenance and meticulous daily scrutiny of your facilities.

The subject of the hypothetical claim above was an old school building that was no longer operated, maintained or supervised by the school board. It was simply loaned to a community for their use. While this may appear to be one of the few uses for a worn out school building, the gracious act of a school board in allowing its unsupervised use for unrelated purposes opens the school board to a broad range of liability and expense.

What to do with old school buildings is a frequent issue in many school districts. Some are fortunately located on otherwise choice commercial property and can be sold for a good price. Others unfortunately, are located in rural communities where an old school building or the land on which it is located has little value.

If your school board, city, or county ponders what to do with this surplus property, please consider that the liability of continuing to own these buildings means that your school system, city, or county continues to be liable for anything that happens on the land or in the building, regardless of whether it is supervised by you. If you do not supervise the activities taking place in these old buildings, you have no way of knowing the state of maintenance of the buildings nor do you know if the current occupants may be playing lawn darts on the gym floor. One thing is certain and that is any event or accident on these premises will be found to be the responsibility of the building’s owner, absent any legal agreements to the contrary.

The best risk management practice regarding these old buildings is GET RID OF THEM. You can sell what is left of the buildings to pay for other needs or give them away to a community organization if they have little value otherwise. The point is that the school, city or county’s name must come off the deed. If it is not possible to convey the deed to the property, you may choose to lease the building and grounds to others with a “hold harmless” agreement whereby the lessee assumes responsibility for insuring the building and its associated operational liability while protecting your interests as the building’s owner. Conversely, if you acquire or annex property, secure documentation of same as it will greatly assist the Risk Management representative in clarifying pertinent coverage issues.

Don’t allow yourself or the Trust to be burdened with liability for a serious claim that could have been prevented. TNRMT is always available to help you work through a process to manage your liability and control your losses. Please contact us at 615-651-8625 if we can help in any way.