Legal Updates

 Litigation and Dispute ResolutionNovember 06, 2023

Personal Injuries in Irish Schools - An Update

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Our February 2019 article detailed the duty of care owed by schools to their students in the context of injuries arising from physical activity. In this update, we will explore developments in the approach being adopted by the courts in determining personal injury actions arising from activities undertaken in schools.

Duty of Care

The Irish courts have held that the standard of care owed by a school is that of a prudent parent in their home and that teachers are deemed to be in ‘loco parentis’. However, as detailed in Maher v. Board of Management Presentation Junior School Mullingar [2004] IEHC 337, a degree of foreseeability regarding the risk of injury is required.

Recent Cases

In a 2023 decision, O'Brien v Byrne & Anor [2023] IEHC 367 the High Court considered an incident in a 2015 P.E class where the plaintiff claimed he suffered a concussion and elbow injury due to the negligent way in which a relay race had been set up in the school hall. The plaintiff and defendant accounts of the incident differed on how far the cones marking the end of the race were from the wall and the space available to safely stop.

The court acknowledged that injuries occur when participating in sporting activities and the question was whether the teacher organised the activity in a safe way with no foreseeable risk of injury to the student. The P.E. teacher’s account was accepted as reliable after a detailed consideration of the evidence relating to the activity in question, the layout of the hall and the route of the race. The court held that no negligence or actionable lack of care had been established and the case was dismissed.

The Court of Appeal in Rafter v Edmund Rice Schools Trust Company Ltd [2023] IECA 188 upheld a High Court judgment awarding general damages of €35,000 to the plaintiff. The 16 year old student suffered an injury to his right index finger when it came into contact with a blade in a bandsaw device in the course of a woodwork class. The High Court had found that the student had been trained on the use of the bandsaw and had not been left to his own devices but the supervision of him by the teacher was not adequate. The court stressed that the finding of negligence was limited to the specific facts of the case and not every task carried out by students using machinery would require the level of scrutiny and supervision warranted in this case. While the plaintiff was successful, the High Court made a differential costs order (the difference between costs in the High Court and the Circuit Court costs if the case was brought in the Circuit Court) on the basis the award came within the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court. The defendant appealed the finding on liability and the plaintiff appealed the differential cost order.

The Court of Appeal held that the issue was the degree of supervision required as against what was actually provided. The plaintiff claimed there had been no supervision and while this was rejected by the High Court, it had found that there was inadequate supervision. In this regard, the Court of Appeal noted that the teacher had gone to the far side of the bandsaw table so he could keep both the plaintiff and the rest of the class under observation. The court noted that the standard of care required of the school is to take reasonable care for the safety of the pupil in all circumstances. These circumstances include factors such as the age of the student, the level of danger inherent in the activity concerned and the experience of the particular student in relation to the activity.

The Court of Appeal found that there was nothing objectionable in the High Court’s conclusion that the work being carried out by the plaintiff, which brought his hands into very close contact with a metal blade moving at high speed, called for particularly close supervision. The court noted that it was common case that the teacher did not see the accident happen and while that may have been because his view was obscured or he was not looking at the critical moment, either way it amounted to a want of proper supervision. The court rejected the proposition that this imposed an impossible standard on a teacher to provide 100% supervision of one student in a class of many. It noted that there was a point of ‘greatest danger’ in this activity when the greatest level of supervision was required, and this was lacking as the teacher was looking elsewhere. The fact the accident took place in a matter of 2-3 seconds was not relevant as it can never be a defence to say that negligence complained of was of a very short duration.

The Court of Appeal also upheld the awarding of the differential cost order, noting the proceedings did not amount to a test case, there was no significant degree of uncertainty as to the injury sustained and it was patently a Circuit Court case at all relevant times.


While the duty of care owed by a school has remained consistent, the differing outcomes of the above cases illustrate clearly that the courts will consider each incident on its own particular facts, with the activity in question being scrutinised to establish whether the school had taken reasonable care for the safety of the student and whether the risks were foreseeable. In particular, it is evident that an assessment of the risk, the level of supervision and instructions given to a student will be crucial to a court’s consideration of a personal injury action arising from an activity in school.

DISCLAIMER: This document is for information purposes only and does not purport to represent legal advice. If you have any queries or would like further information relating to any of the above matters, please refer to the contacts above or your usual contact in Dillon Eustace.

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