What is Negligent Supervision?

Learn about the legal obligations that schools, day care facilities, nursing homes, and employers have to provide adequate supervision.

By , Attorney (University of Tulsa College of Law)
Updated by Dan Ray, Attorney · University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law

The general rule under American law is that one person has no legal duty to supervise another, unless a special relationship between them creates that duty. There are several relationships where a duty to supervise can exist, including relationships between:

  • teachers, school administrators, and day care providers and the children or students for whom they're responsible
  • health care providers and patients, and
  • employers and employees.

As we'll see, the duty to supervise isn't a "one size fits all" legal obligation. The nature of the duty—what kind of supervision is required and when—depends on the facts and circumstances.

What Does Negligent Supervision Mean?

"Negligence" is a catch-all legal term meaning a failure to act with reasonable care under the circumstances. Negligent supervision, then, is a failure to provide the level of supervision that a reasonably careful person would under the same circumstances.

A supervisor is negligent when:

  • there was a duty to supervise
  • the supervisor failed to meet, or "breached," that duty
  • someone was injured, and
  • the injury was caused by the failure to adequately supervise.

Factors That Determine Duty and Breach

A duty to supervise exists when the supervisor should anticipate a risk of harm to someone—the person who should be supervised or another person—if adequate supervision is lacking. This legal obligation generally includes duties to:

  • protect the person being supervised from harm caused by themselves or others, and
  • protect others from harm caused by the person being supervised.

Courts will look at several factors to decide whether a duty exists and if so, the kind of supervision that should have been provided. Here are some of those factors.

Age and ability to appreciate risk. A kindergarten student using scissors for an art project requires more supervision than a middle school student. An elderly dementia patient needs more supervision than a patient with no cognitive deficits.

Experience level. A teenage delivery driver with just a few months of driving experience likely requires closer supervision than an adult who's been driving for decades. A child who has played baseball for several years probably doesn't need as much supervision as one who's playing for the first time.

Nature of the activity. An elderly patient recovering from hip replacement surgery will need more supervision for bathroom activities than one who's laying in bed watching television. An employee who's dusting office furniture needs less supervision than a trainee who's being taught to operate an industrial punch press.

Vulnerability of others. Residents at a nursing facility are more vulnerable to harm from an unsupervised resident or others than those at an independent living center. Infants or toddlers in daycare are at greater risk of harm from an improperly supervised child than are high school students.

The risks of the environment. Different environments pose different risks, some greater than others. For example, a playground is a much more dynamic environment than the typical classroom. A field trip may present even more threats to a child's well-being than a playground. A production floor with high-speed equipment and machines poses greater risks than an office full of cubicles where workers have little direct contact with one another.

Schoolchildren and Children in Day Care

There was a time when educators and day care operators only had to worry about a child's safety during risky activities like sports or field trips. Those days are long gone. Day care abductions, school shootings, and other acts of violence mean that supervisors must remain vigilant at all times when children and students are present.

Among other things, schools and day care facilities have duties to protect children from:

  • abuse and abduction by teachers, administrators, parents, guardians, and others
  • physical and emotional harms caused by other students, such as bullying or assault
  • harm from online threats like cyberstalking, and
  • mass casualty events like shootings.

Schools and day care facilities have a duty to constantly monitor the environment for potential threats and dangers. But the duty to supervise means much more than simply monitoring and observing. It also means taking reasonable steps to eliminate threats and dangers.

Depending on the situation, those steps might be as simple as taking a ball out of a child's hands. In more extreme or dangerous incidents, police, child protective services, or health care providers might have to be notified. In each case, the extent of the duty depends on the nature of the risk and the severity of the possible harm.

Patients in Inpatient Care Settings

While the duty to supervise extends to all inpatients regardless of the setting, we're particularly interested in elderly residents of nursing homes, tertiary care facilities, and assisted living communities. These patients are vulnerable physically, emotionally, and cognitively, factors that automatically call for greater supervision.

Many of these facilities are chronically understaffed, outdated and underfunded, making proper patient supervision all the more critical. Staff often are undertrained, leaving them incapable of responding appropriately to patients' supervisory needs.

Staff supervisory responsibilities include duties to:

  • make sure residents receive all prescribed medications, therapies, and other necessary treatments
  • tend to residents' daily needs, like feeding, bathing, and bathroom assistance
  • monitor patients for the development of new or worsened medical conditions, especially bedsores and infections, and if these conditions develop, to report them so they're properly treated
  • protect residents from abuse or neglect by staff, visitors, contractors, and other residents, and
  • be sure patients don't get out of bed unsupervised if they're at risk of falling, wandering off, leaving the facility, or harming themselves or other residents.

Residents with a history of aggression toward staff or other patients, falls, injuries, or other incidents must be supervised more closely. Especially in understaffed facilities, the temptation is to use physical restraints or sedation to keep them under control. While these methods aren't necessarily negligent, they can lead to legal liability if they're used by default.

Employer-Employee Relationships

While employers have a general duty to supervise employees at all times, our focus here is narrower. Many failure to supervise claims against employers result from:

  • injuries caused by careless driving or negligent operation of machinery or equipment
  • hazardous activities like the use of firearms, explosives, or chemicals
  • employees who work while drunk or under the influence of other substances, and
  • physical assaults on or harassment of coworkers, supervisors, customers, suppliers, and others.

As workplace incidents become more frequent, employers' supervisory responsibilities also increase. Employers should have policies and procedures in place to learn about an employee's history (including criminal, driving, and other background checks) and deal with employees who engage in troubling on-the job behaviors.

Employers who know or have reason to know of an employee's problems—a reckless driving history, for example, or anger management issues, or tendencies for interpersonal conflicts—and who fail to take necessary precautions or implement safety measures are targets for negligent supervision claims.

Damages in a Negligent Supervision Case

If you're injured because of someone's negligent supervision, you can collect compensatory damages to reimburse you for your losses. Compensatory damages fall into two categories:

  • economic (also called "special") damages, and
  • noneconomic (also called "general") damages.

Economic Damages

Economic damages cover your past and future medical bills, lost wages, amounts you must pay for replacement services like home or lawn care, and other out-of-pocket expenses you pay because of your injuries. Proving your past economic damages is usually straightforward. You can document your past lost income with a letter from your employer's human resources office. Proving future losses can be more tricky.

Noneconomic Damages

Noneconomic damages are intended to make you whole for more intangible losses like pain and suffering, emotional distress, disability and disfigurement, and the like. Because they're not as easily reduced to dollars as your economic losses, proving the amounts of your noneconomic damages can be a challenge. Many lawyers and insurance companies use a mathematical formula to come up with a starting figure for settlement negotiations.

Get Help With Your Negligent Supervision Claim

Negligent supervision claims can be difficult to prove and win. In addition to proving the elements of your case, you'll have to be prepared to meet and overcome a variety of potential defenses. For example, educators will claim that an unruly student suffered from disabilities that they were required to accommodate, which hindered their ability to effectively control the student and safeguard others.

You'll need experienced legal help on your side—a lawyer who knows the elements of your case and who can anticipate and head off a variety of defenses. The other side will have legal counsel in their corner. To make it a fair fight, you should too.

Here's how to find an attorney in your area who's right for you and your case.

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