School Trip Drowning Case Spurs Discussions on Negligence and Liability
In 2017, Jeremiah Perry, a 15-year-old high school student from Toronto, drowned during a school-organized camping and canoeing trip in Algonquin Park. Roughly a year later, Nicholas Mills, the teacher who organized the trip, was charged with criminal negligence causing death. He is currently standing trial. Although there is no civil case surrounding these events, personal injury lawyers with expertise in negligence are watching the case closely.
In the years since Jeremiah’s death, questionable practices at the school have prompted conversations about who should be labile for injuries sustained during school-sanctioned trips and events. Does the blame fall solely on Mr. Mills, or should the school’s administration also be held responsible? What roll did the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) play in the tragedy? And should Jeremiah’s family have considered a civil lawsuit in addition to the criminal charges?
According to a Global News report from July 2017, Jeremiah died on July 4 of ‘an apparent drowning’ while swimming in Big Trout Lake, in Algonquin Park. He was participating in a week-long excursion with 32 other students and a handful of adult teachers and supervisors.
Guidelines set by the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association state that students must pass a swim test before attending this type of excursion. A third-party review of the events revealed that Jeremiah failed his test, along with more than a dozen other students on the trip.
“Documentation from the swim test indicates that Jeremiah did not pass the test,” said TDSB Director of Education, John Malloy, at a press conference in August 2017. “I am deeply troubled by these findings and that such a critical safety requirement in our procedures appears not to have been followed.”
Why Weren’t the Rules Followed?
Testifying in court last month, Nicholas Mills admitted that he didn’t follow all established safety guidelines because they didn’t align with standards for commercial, private, or other group outings. The swim test rule was one of the guidelines Mills ignored, along with a rule that all lifeguards on the trip be over 18 years old.
“I knew that you could run safe canoe trips without following all the OPHEA rules, and I don’t even know the number of people who do [follow those rules’ every single summer,” Mills said, according to the CBC. “And it was a really great experience for the kids.”
Mills further testified that he saw the OPHEA guidelines as “a framework that you use with your own personal skills” and insisted that the rules he did put in place were “way above normal standards in the canoeing industry.”
He also testified that the school’s principal at the time, Monday Gala, was aware that the trip would be attended by students who failed to pass the swim test or were allowed to wear lifejackets during the test.
According to criminal lawyers who spoke to CBC News Toronto in 2018, proving criminal negligence is a tough task for any Crown prosecutor. This case will be particularly challenging given the unusual set of circumstances surrounding it and the heightened media attention.
The Criminal Code states that a person is guilty of negligence if “in doing anything, or in omitting to do anything that it is his duty to do, shows wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other persons.” However, there is a high burden of proof to prove this negligence.
“[The Crown] would have to prove that either the teacher committed a specific act, or omitted to do something which he had a legal duty to do,” one lawyer told the CBC. “So they have to prove on those two requirements – not both.”
In civil negligence cases, the sort litigated by Will Davidson LLP’s team of personal injury lawyers, the standard of proof is lower than in criminal cases, where prosecutors must prove negligence beyond a reasonable doubt. Civil negligence trials are judged on a balance of probabilities; it is up to the judge or jury to decide whether the defendant has breached the necessary standard of care.
There have been no media reports stating that Jeremiah Perry’s family is seeking compensation via a civil lawsuit. However, claims against teachers, schools, and schoolboards are not unheard of in instances of serious injury or death during school-sanctioned activities. Liability waivers are often barriers to success in these cases, but waivers are rarely ironclad and do not sanction gross negligence. Contact the personal injury lawyers at Will Davidson LLP to learn more.
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