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Should students be responsible for $150,000 sprinkler damage?

An impromptu soccer game in the spring between two Arlington County students in their high school's hallway led to a tripped sprinkler system, a flooded gym and more than $150,000 in damage that they might have to pay for. Read the full article.

By Jodi Westrick  |  July 15, 2010; 7:12 AM ET  | Category:  Local Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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The students are responsible for breaking the sprinkler head that was damaged by the soccer ball.

The sprinkler system manufacturer is responsible for assuring the system doesn't distribute water unless fire occurs and the contractor knew the sprinkler heads would be located in a school hallway where children might choose to play.

World Cup forever!

Posted by: blasmaic | July 15, 2010 8:34 AM

I want to ask all those who voted "Yes" to ask yourself this: If I am kicking a soccer ball around in a school hallway with presumably nothing of high value (maybe just cinder blocks and lockers?) Would I expect a stray soccer ball IN THAT HALLWAY to cause $150,000 in damage?

This is where non-lawyers do not understand the theory of proximate cause:

In determining whether a defendant's negligence is the proximate cause of a plaintiff's injury, most courts focus on the foreseeability of the harm that resulted from the defendant's negligence. For example, if a driver negligently drives his automobile, it is foreseeable that he might cause an accident with another vehicle, hit a pedestrian, or crash into a storefront. Thus, the driver would be liable for those damages. But suppose the negligent driver collides with a truck carrying dynamite, causing an explosion that injures a person two blocks away. Assuming that the driver had no idea that the truck was carrying dynamite, it is not foreseeable that his negligent driving could injure a person two blocks away. Therefore the driver would not be liable for that person's injury under this approach. When applying this approach, courts frequently instruct juries to consider whether the harm or injury was the "natural or probable" consequence of the defendant's negligence.

Here, I don't think the students knew anything about what hitting the fire alarm could or would do. Hence, the sprinkler system manufacture is liable. Period.

Posted by: chaddsford1971 | July 15, 2010 8:42 AM

This is tough. My kids know they do NOT play ball in the house. Someone at the school should have intervened and the parents should have taught their kids not to play ball indoors. But then again - why bother having insurance if they don't cover accidents?

Posted by: mwcob | July 15, 2010 8:47 AM

These are the same stingy insurance companies that let you believe you have health care, auto, boat,homeowners coverage,etc. and then refuse to pay when you and your neighbors make a legit claim. Meanwhile the insurance company execs party on, go to lavish company meetings boast about quarterly profits, and get govt bailout money if they think they might be in trouble. Yes the insurance co should pay up, and it wouldn't hurt to have the kids involved do some type of community service work.There is a simple solution here- put a sturdy metal cage around the sprinklers so they don't get bumped and go off....and,no, I'm not a rocket scientist!

Posted by: lsf07 | July 15, 2010 8:58 AM

Please help me understand how a damaged sprinkler head in a hallway led to the sprinkler system in the gym being activated? At most the kids should be responsible for is the repair of the damaged sprinkler head.

Posted by: almelbe | July 15, 2010 9:08 AM

No! Kids do silly things all the time, and this was an accident. It was not like they were doing anything intentional. The question is why there are not cages protecting the sprinkler elements from physical impact so they won't be triggered by accident like in this case? This is a school... with children... who do dumb things... because they are children. Being in HS is a time for lesson learning in more ways than one. The county should pay it. And this coming from an Arlington County tax payer and W-L alumnus.

Posted by: JorgeGortex | July 15, 2010 9:18 AM

The laissez faire attitude protrayed here by supposed adults, is exactly why the current generation, far more than any other is the laziest, most self obsessed "I'm precious" clap trap of undisciplined kids to ever walk the earth.

Let me ask you this...

Had the soccer ball "accidentally" activated the fire system signaling the evacuation of the school and some kid had gotten injured or killed in the stampede, who is "responsible" then?

These were highschool students, not 8 year olds in 3rd grade. What possible "expectation" of play in a common space like a hallway could there possibly be? In a gym? Yes...hallway, no.

In the end, all of Arlington (which I am thankfully not a resident of) will pay, and the same folks attributing this to "those silly kids" will wonder why and complain when their property taxes shoot up again next year.

Posted by: Nosh1 | July 15, 2010 9:56 AM

My answer is Maybe, from a lawyer POV...

Proximate cause MIGHT let these kids off the hook, but not necessarily. The natural argument is that the kids should not be engaging in such behavior in the halls. It is likely that there is some prevision in the charter that dictates hallway behavior. If so, the students are in violation. If in violation, the penalty may legitimately be for the students to pay, as they directly triggered the action (intended or not). It is a bit unlike the car explosion example of chaddsford1971, as the incident is a primary result of the accident, and not the result of a domino-like situation. It is still unclear from this article if something was actually faulty (i.e., was the hallway and the gym in the same zone?). That is another factor that has to be understood. Perhaps, the gym/hallway are in the same zone and the system is designed to go off is in this way.

Importantly, the issue has little to do with the school, and more to do with the insurance co. By that I imply that this will likely be a very uphill fight for the student.

Posted by: law3 | July 15, 2010 10:03 AM

NOSH1 clearly doesn't understand the law.

LAW3 -- If this isn't a clear case of the domino effect, I don't know what is then. I think the car case is precisely on point. (1) Kids kick soccer ball, which hits fire alarm. (2) Soccer ball triggers and activates fire alarm. (3) fire alarm triggers sprinkers. (4) sprinkle water gushes down tile hallway. (5) water reaches gym wood floors. (6) water penetrates wood floor causing damange. Enough said.

I think proximate cause would hold them liable for anything damaged in the hallway such as the alarm trigger, as almelbe states. Or if there was a broken window or locker in that hallway -- or if a student was hit directly by the soccer ball.

I agree with lsf07 -- what it comes down to is an insurance company trying to get out of paying what they owe. Ironically, their legal fees may far exceed $150,000 defending against this claim.

Posted by: chaddsford1971 | July 15, 2010 10:31 AM


Man oh Man. Imagine if this were Anacostia High School

Posted by: dcis1 | July 15, 2010 10:44 AM

To be honest, the article just says the school's insurance company is seeking compensation from one of the families' insurance companies. Probably falls under their homeowner's insurance. Perhaps Travelers (the school's insurance) is just looking for what it can be paid through their policy, not looking for the family to pay the whole $150,000 regardless of what their policy would cover or not cover.

Posted by: janelkb | July 15, 2010 10:48 AM

dcis1- If this were Anacostia High, it would have been a stray bullet from a hallway GUN fight that hit the fire alarm...not a soccer ball...DUH!

Posted by: chaddsford1971 | July 15, 2010 10:48 AM

I wonder which is more negligent: students playing soccer in a hallway, or a building-wide sprinkler system that activates when enough force is applied to a single nozzle. High school hallways have never been a symbol of order and good behavior. The sprinkler nozzle might just as well have been hit by an errant textbook, or bumped by a student being carried on the shoulders of another. How many times might the freshman art class have hung their mobiles from the sprinkler nozzles in the hallway? Between the linoleum floors, metal lockers, and cinder block walls, students may get the distinct impression that their hallways are fairly durable.

Posted by: smart-aleck | July 15, 2010 10:49 AM

They shouldn't have to pay at all because like previously stated, the spinkler should know when it's an accidental set off and a real fire. In school's the fire alarm should only go off if pulled because god knows what could've hit the sprinkler and set it off.

Posted by: kelzdagreat16 | July 15, 2010 11:00 AM

I'm sorry, but in what universe is playing soccer in school hallways appropriate behavior? The answer is that it's NOT. Arlington county builds absurdly expensive schools for its students; the students need to be taught to have some respect for them.

Moreover, it's not just the damage to the facility, but this little stunt reportedly disrupted summer camp plans for others.

Kids need to be taught to be accountable for their actions. So they deserve to be held responsible--even if those actions did end up producing more harm than they intended. Life's like that sometimes.

Posted by: JoeSchmoe06 | July 15, 2010 11:14 AM

Actually chaddsford1971...
The article clearly says "...the stray ball hit a sprinkler and set off the system that evening..."

There is absolutely no mention of the first 3 steps of your argument. There is no mention of "fire alarm" in the original article by Michael Chandler. Ball hits sprinklers. Sprinklers go off. That is quite direct. I would agree with you about 99% if those steps were in the article. But they are not.

There is a lot that is not well revealed by the article, but clearly the issue will be Travelers attempting to get monies from the student. The School System (and thereby your county taxes) shouldn't fit the bill or be affected at all (as per other comments).

Posted by: law3 | July 15, 2010 11:23 AM

Out of all the comments from this article I am disappointed in the lack of knowledge of the fire suppression system. A sprinkler head has a small glass bulb in it that is holding back the water for fire suppression. This bulb is designed to break at a preset temperature. In areas, such as a gymnasium, sprinkler guards are attached to the sprinkler to prevent accidental breaks in the bulb. However, who in their right mind would assume ONE sprinkler head would be broken in a hallway of school. How many times does this happen?

In my opinion, the kid is responsible for his actions. Accidents happen. If this was someone else in a different situation they would be responsible. What would happen if a shopping cart you were pushing ran into a car into the parking and damaged the car? It would be your responsibility to pay for the damages, not the car owner. The same logic should apply here. It is not the school's fault for not installing an idiot proof sprinkler system.

Posted by: jrsellers09 | July 15, 2010 11:27 AM

I should as well point out...
The important factor here is the commonly-used word "negligence". If this had resulted from a broomstick that was accidentally lifted too high, it would be a more customary "accident". Also, if this had been a consequence of a manufacturer/design/instillation problem, negligence would be superseded by these factors. If the facts are as laid out in the article (and likely the ins co would not have given a policy to a business without knowing that the fire system was customarily installed), this will PROBABLY fall under "negligence" on the part of the student, and thus the student will become "liable". Such things happen with some degree of frequency in modern apartment buildings and office spaces.

Posted by: law3 | July 15, 2010 11:42 AM

"stray ball" a school hallway? Insurance should cover some of it, but the students who were acting irresponsibly should be involved in the repairs. If a window had been broken, we'd expect them (and/or their parents) to pay for that. Irresponsible behavior is costly at times...think about it.

Posted by: DecafDrinker | July 15, 2010 11:51 AM

The only problem is that it wont be the kids that will pay for it. Its the parents that are really going to pay.

Posted by: squirejoe | July 15, 2010 12:24 PM

"The sprinkler system manufacturer is responsible for assuring the system doesn't distribute water unless fire occurs and the contractor knew the sprinkler heads would be located in a school hallway where children might choose to play."

The students DAMAGED the sprinkler system, which is beyond the reach of the sprinkler system manufacturer. Their system is not designed to be smashed by soccer balls.

Posted by: microsoft | July 15, 2010 2:07 PM

"If I am kicking a soccer ball around in a school hallway with presumably nothing of high value (maybe just cinder blocks and lockers)? Would I expect a stray soccer ball in that hallway to cause $150,000 in damage?"

The question is: why are you kicking a soccer ball around a school hallway? And why are you organizing a soccer game indoors?

Posted by: microsoft | July 15, 2010 2:09 PM

True...but they chose to have the kids and kids can cost money in many ways.

Posted by: DecafDrinker | July 15, 2010 2:24 PM

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