Liability Risks for After-Hours Use of Public School Property to Reduce Obesity: A 50-State Survey


  • Research support was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity, a project of Public Health Law & Policy (

Tom Baker, William Maul Measey Professor of Law and Health Sciences, (, University of Pennsylvania Law School, 3400 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104.


BACKGROUND: One way to address childhood obesity is to create outlets for children to engage in physical activity. Schools are well equipped to provide an active environment. However, some school boards and administrators are concerned about liability risks. This study describes the legal rules applicable to potential claims against public schools during recreational use of school grounds and facilities.

METHODS: Using traditional legal methods including the use of legal databases and treatises, the legal rules from 50 states were surveyed to determine what type of liability schools face when opening their grounds for after-school recreational use.

RESULTS: Schools would, at most, be held to a reasonable standard of care, under which a person would be found liable if he did not act prudently in a given set of circumstances. This standard is no more onerous than that applied to most activities in the United States. Schools in many states, including California, also receive the benefit of governmental immunity. Furthermore, 21 states have recreational use statutes, which result in more lenient liability rules for injuries during recreational use of school facilities.

CONCLUSIONS: Public schools in most states can be subject to liability in certain cases arising out of recreational use of their facilities. However, schools have important defenses. In combination with empirical research about liability in other contexts, this survey suggests that liability risks are unlikely to justify the denial of recreational access to children who are at risk of obesity.