The First Supreme Court Opinion of the Current Term

Dennehy v. East Windsor Regional Bd. of Educ., 252 N.J. 201 (2022). As discussed here, this case involved an injury to a high school field hockey player at an informal team practice when she was hit by a soccer ball that had come from a nearby field. The soccer ball went over a “ball stopper” that was designed to prevent ball interference between simultaneous games or practices on different fields. Plaintiff sued based on defendants’ alleged failure to supervise and to prevent foreseeable dangerous conditions.

The Law Division granted summary judgment to defendants, holding that the recklessness standard of Crawn v. Campo, 136 N.J. 494 (1994), applied and that plaintiff had not satisfied it. The Appellate Division reversed in an opinion published at 469 N.J. Super. 357 (App. Div. 2021). That court held that the Crawn recklessness test did not apply outside the context of a direct injury involving equally situated participants in the same sporting event.

Today, in the Supreme Court’s first opinion of the current Term, the Court affirmed the Appellate Division. Writing for the Court, Judge Fisher carefully canvassed the relevant caselaw, including Crawn and a number of other cases, and concluded, as the Appellate Division had, that negligence, not recklessness, was the correct standard in the context of this case. This was not a situation where any defendant actively injured a plaintiff in a sporting event, as in the prior cases, but a suit that alleged only that defendants exposed plaintiff to harm by the selection of the time and place that plaintiff and the field hockey team would be holding their informal practice.

Judge Fisher also noted that policy considerations did not require a recklessness standard on the facts here. “The recognition of a simple negligence standard in these circumstances does not place an unreasonable burden ‘on the free and vigorous participation in sports by our youth,’ [quoting Crawn], nor is it likely to flood our courts with litigation.” In fact, he said, public policy called for a negligence standard. “In these and other similar settings, parents have the right to expect that teachers and coaches will exercise reasonable care when in charge of their children and that courts will not immunize a teacher’s negligence by imposing a higher standard of care.” The Court remanded the case for further proceedings, of course expressly declining to opine as to whether there was any negligence by defendants.