Parents often leave their children in the temporary care of a teacher, daycare, summer camp or sports coach. By doing this, they are temporarily delegating their authority as parents. The teacher, childcare worker or monitor gains some control over the child, but also takes on responsibilities.
In this article, Éducaloi explains when a person with temporary custody, supervision or education of a child under 18 can be held responsible if something goes wrong.
Who is a monitor, supervisor, or educator?
School teachers and playground monitors come to mind first, but many other people educate or have custody or supervision of children: coaches, dance instructors, music teachers, daycare workers, summer camp monitors, adults hosting a birthday party, one parent in an unmarried (common-law) couple, etc.
As a teacher, can I be held responsible if a child in my care injures someone or damages something?
As a teacher, you have temporary custody of minor children (children under 18) and you must supervise and educate them. Their parents have delegated control and supervision of these children to you. In law, this is called delegation of parental authority. Because you are in charge, and the children are under your control, the law says that you can be held responsible for damage they cause.
The law says you are responsible if a child in your care injures someone, harms an animal or damages property, whether or not the child did something wrong.
If sued, it would be up to you to prove that you were not at fault in the custody, supervision or education of the child.
For example, you could argue that
- your duty to supervise had ended when he caused the harm,
- your supervision was adequate and you were unable to stop him from doing what he did, or
- the child’s actions were totally unpredictable.
Here is an example: Mrs. Lachance is a high school drama teacher. She asks her 14-year-old students to create a play that will be presented to the class. One of the scripts she gets involves a scene where a book is thrown from the top of a staircase. Mrs. Lachance tells the students that they can do the scene as long as they use loose papers instead of a book. She also goes over safety rules with the students and warns them not to forget that the play isn’t real. Unfortunately, when the students present their play, they throw a book, injuring one of them. Mrs. Lachance is sued. She argues before the judge that the use of the book was totally unpredictable. The judge agrees and does not hold her responsible.
I teach karate. Can I be held responsible for a student’s actions outside of class time?
As a general rule, your responsibility is limited to damage caused by a minor child (under 18) while the child is under your supervision.
But in some cases, your responsibility can be broader. If it can be shown that the child’s actions outside your supervision stemmed from poor education you provided the child, you might be held responsible for the damage caused.
If I am sued, what can I prove so that the judge will not hold me responsible?
To avoid being held responsible, you must show that you acted like a responsible and diligent monitor, supervisor or educator.
Here are some ways you could support your argument:
- The child was no longer under your supervision when he acted. However, this argument might not work if it is shown that the child's actions resulted from poor education you gave the child. (See question above about the karate teacher.)
- You adequately supervised the child. You can also show that your supervision complied with the supervision policy of your employer or group.
- The child’s actions were unpredictable. Even though you took reasonable precautions, you could not have known what the child was going to do. This might be the case if a model student shoots a slingshot at another teacher.
- The child’s actions fell within the risks involved in an activity or sport. You must show that the children under your supervision were not taking unnecessary risks and were involved in activities appropriate to their ages and skills. You must also show that you properly instructed the children on how to play and you took the necessary safety precautions, for example, having them wear protective equipment.
I am a gym teacher. Are there basic precautions I can take organizing sports activities for my students?
Yes. During physical education classes, extracurricular activities and recess, children play sports and have a greater risk of injury.
As a teacher, you are responsible for choosing sports that are suitable for the children’s ages and skill levels. You should take these precautions:
- Instruct students on how to play the game safely.
- Supervise students by enforcing the rules of the game and advising caution.
- Make sure that the students are wearing protective gear when necessary and ensure that the sport’s equipment and location are suitable and safe.
If all of these precautions are taken, teachers can minimize their chances of being sued and held responsible for damage caused by students under their supervision.
Should I adopt an attitude of zero tolerance regarding behaviour of children under my supervision?
No, not at all. A schoolyard is not an army reserve.
What the law requires is that you not tolerate dangerous conduct from a child under your supervision. If one warning is not enough, issue a second, or stop the child from doing whatever it is that he is doing. For example, you can take away a dangerous object he is playing with. Do what is necessary to ensure that the child respects the limits you have set
My teenage daughter babysits for extra cash. If a child under her care injures another child, can my daughter be held responsible?
The law has different rules for people who supervise children free of charge or for a small amount of money that cannot be considered a salary.
These people will not be held responsible unless it is shown that they did something wrong in their care, supervision or education of a child.
This is different from paid caretakers, monitors and educators who are assumed to be at fault if a child in their custody does something that damages someone’s property or causes someone physical injury, whether or not the child’s act was wrong.
This article explains in a general way the law that applies in Quebec. This article is not a legal opinion or legal advice. To find out the specific rules for your situation, consult a lawyer or notary.