School District Found Not Liable for Child Burned on Radiator

By Betsy G. Ramos, Esq.

The minor plaintiff Ashanti Atkins, age 6, a first grader at Lincoln School in Newark, was burned by a radiator in the girl’s bathroom. She had climbed onto the 26 inch high uncovered, cast-iron radiator to look out the window, her foot slipped, and her leg became wedged behind the radiator. As a result, she suffered third-degree burns on her leg. In Atkins v. State-Operated School District of Newark, 2014 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2430 (Oct. 14, 2014 App. Div.), she sued the Newark School District (“District”), claiming that the radiator was a dangerous condition of its property.

The plaintiff’s claim was subject to the immunities of the Tort Claims Act (“TCA”). The trial court concluded that the radiator was in a physical condition for what it was intended – to heat the room – and there was no evidence that it was palpably unreasonable for the District to leave the radiators uncovered, as they were when they were originally installed.

The plaintiff argued to the Appellate Division that an uncovered, cast-iron radiator placed in a restroom used by children as young as Atkins does qualify as a dangerous condition under the TCA and that it was palpably unreasonable for the District to leave it uncovered.

The Appellate Division pointed out that New Jersey has rejected the approach that a dangerous condition looks to the effects – that whenever danger exists, so does a dangerous condition of property. Here, the hotness of the radiator is essential to the only purpose served by the fixture – to heat the room. It is not designed to be a step-stool.

There was no evidence that anyone was ever injured by accidental contact with the radiator and the plaintiff was unable to establish that the District had actual or constructive knowledge of the need to protect a child from wedging his or her limb behind a radiator in the bathroom. Further, the plaintiff was unable to establish that it was palpably unreasonable to forego covering these radiators or for the District to fail to warn children who might enter a room with an uncovered radiator that it is hot. Thus, the Appellate Division affirmed the dismissal of the complaint.

This case also highlights that a “dangerous condition” under the TCA will only exist when that condition creates a substantial risk of injury “when such property is used with due care in a manner in which it is reasonably foreseeable to be used.” Thus, when analyzing a premises TCA case, one must consider not only the condition of the property but how was it used by the plaintiff when the injury occurred. Its use should be scrutinized to determine if the use was with “due care” in a foreseeable manner. If not, a public entity will have a valid defense under the TCA.