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$700,000 verdict gives chaperones pause

When she traveled to China with her son's school choir, Teresa Cleary spent a fair amount of time worrying that a student under her supervision might become lost or ill.
Image: Funeral for Lauren Crossan in 2004
The casket containing the body of Lauren Crossan is carried out after her funeral mass on Jan. 19, 2004.  The 18-year-old Randolph High School cheerleader died while in Hawaii during a school trip to perform during the halftime show at the Hula Bowl college football game.Warren Westura / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

When she traveled to China with her son's school choir, Teresa Cleary spent a fair amount of time worrying that a student under her supervision might become lost or ill.

She didn't consider another possible consequence: getting sued.

A nearly $700,000 verdict against a chaperone of a cheerleading trip to Hawaii is enough to give a chaperone pause, said Cleary, of Cincinnati.

“Whether it’s a trip to the zoo with the first grade or a trip to China with a group of high school students, there's always an anxiety,” she said. “I'm responsible for someone else’s child.”

Add legal liability to the equation, and, "I definitely think it could impact some people’s willingness to chaperone.”

The Hawaii verdict came in the case of an 18-year-old high school student who fell to her death from a Maui hotel balcony.

Lauren Crossan, of Randolph, N.J., had traveled to Hawaii in 2004 with Susanne Sadler, Sadler's daughter, and another New Jersey cheerleader to perform in the halftime show of the Hula Bowl. Within hours of her arrival at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort, Crossan was seen drinking alcohol.

Her body was found the next day on the hotel grounds.

An arbitrator determined last month that Sadler was partially responsible for Crossan’s death and ordered her to pay $690,000 to Crossan's parents and her estate.

Getting sued is a possibility the Blacksburg High School Band Boosters in Blacksburg, Va., have considered, said John Sills, who organized a band trip to Orlando in April.

Liability insurance
The booster club is in “active discussion” about the possibility of purchasing liability insurance to protect parents, said Sills, the president of the organization. Members are concerned about the possibility of lawsuits, he said.

“If we decided not to have any insurance, at some point a year or two from now, some parents might say they can't take the risks,” Sills said.

Jan Harp Domene of Anaheim, Calif., was grateful for the liability insurance provided by the California PTA when she was sued because a student broke his nose while slam-dancing at a dance she was chaperoning.

“Parents need to be cautious,” said Harp Domene, who serves as president of National PTA. “Parents trust that you are watching over their children.”

Not all schools provide liability coverage. Concerned chaperones can also look to their homeowners policies, some of which cover accidents away from the home.

Sometimes it takes an event like the Crossan lawsuit to draw attention to a potential risk, said Lisa Soronen, a senior staff attorney with National School Board Association in Alexandria, Va.

“Many parents do chaperone and don't think a think about it for a second,” she said. “Almost everything a school does involves some amount of risk.”

The key is to work with the school or sponsoring organization to reduce the risks, Soronen said. Students and chaperones should be made aware of the expectations while on a trip, she said.

Vigilant of potential dangers
Once on the trip, parents should be vigilant about watching for potential dangers, added James Krueger, the Maui attorney who represented Crossan's family.

Krueger, who would not comment on the Crossan case because of a court-imposed gag order, said parents could reduce their liability by enforcing the rules established by the trip’s sponsor and using common sense parenting skills.

“If you're a good parent, you’re not going to have problems,” said Krueger, who has handled numerous cases of children injured while in the custody of someone other than their parents. “If you’re a crappy parent, you are.”

The case was not unlike a wrongful death suit that someone might file against a doctor, said Neil Vidmar, a Duke University law professor.

“It’s a tragic case, but it doesn’t seem to me to be particularly unusual,” he said.

Others have suggested, in online discussion generated by the Crossan award, that the case is another example of Americans choosing to sue rather than take responsibility for their actions. Critics of the decision note that Crossan, while a high-school student, was 18.

To Cleary, the benefits of school trips still outweigh the risks. The Winton Woods High School trip to China changed lives, she said.

“They came home appreciating the country they live in,” she said. “It changed who they were — grew them up a bit.”