School Layout To Minimize Risk

Many instructors and owners have no control over school layout. If your school is already operational, or if your budget for remodeling is limited in a new school, there may be nothing you can do to change the fundamental layout of your school. That’s okay. This isn’t a command to spend enormous sums of money to change everything, but, rather, suggestions to consider when you do have control over the layout of your school.

Offices for View of Door and Floor

When you’re busy at work in your office and the front door swings quietly open, can you see who it is? When students are training before or after classes and you’ve gone to do paperwork in the office, can you see the floor? When you’re on the floor and someone steps into your office, can you see them?

A school owner stepped out briefly to patronize a nearby business. He was only going to be gone for a few minutes, but there was a small problem with the customer in front of him and he was gone for nearly ten minutes. When he returned, he found two boys, both preteens, in his school playing with the weapons. They were startled, dropped the weapons and ran. Had they injured themselves, the owner would have been liable.

In the above case, the lack of supervision was due to a momentary absence, but had he been in his office and the same thing happened, he would also have been liable. (Note: Always lock up if you are leaving, even for a few minutes.) Also, if you are working in your office, what’s to stop someone from doing a snatch and run — coming inside, grabbing an expensive weapon or piece of equipment, and running off with it? 

Even for pure business considerations, you want to be able to see your front door from your office. If a prospect wanders by and they can’t see anyone, most won’t come inside. If you can’t see them at your front door, you can wave hello and go talk to them. That’s one more student you may never sign up just because you couldn’t see them. 

Imagine making an appointment to meet an excited potential student, but he/she shows up, peers through the door glass, and sees no one. Assuming you’re not there, your potential student leaves. What happens then?  Because you could not be seen from the window, you lose a student.

Also, when students are on the floor, you want to be able to see them. For risk management, it is more important to see student activity than it is to see people coming and going. If students are performing skills or drills improperly, and you don’t see it, they may get hurt. If students are violating school rules and they hurt someone, the owner may be held liable. If a visitor who has not signed any paperwork is working out (or just playing) and get hurts, the owner may be held responsible.

You want your office in view from the floor. Keep in mind that the office may be used improperly if you can’t see in your office from the floor. 

A school owner’s son raped a young girl in the school office, and no one saw it. The office interior was not in view from the floor, and an innocent young student suffered for it. While you might have a policy that forbids students from going into your office, this case involved the son, someone the owner presumably trusted.

In another matter, senior students were often used to supervise the class when the instructor staff was occupied. One of the instructor staff was graduating from high school, so the senior staff attended the commencement exercise. A trusted high-ranking student ran the class that evening and, that night, calls to phone sex services occurred, using the credit card numbers of students gained from the financial records of the school. The senior student had used the office, unseen by the others in the school.

You need to be able to see your front door, and you absolutely must be able to see your workout floor. If you cannot see the floor from the office, then some responsible instructor or staff person should be in view of the door and the floor at all times when the school is open and the floor is available.

You should be able to see in your office from the floor, and others should be able to see you if you are in a meeting. While some privacy might be preferred, total privacy can lead to any number of problems, such as those above. Some judgment is required here, since to err on the side of privacy can lead to sufficient privacy to commit crimes or sexual misconduct (or the appearance of one or the other, even if never done). And erring on the side of openness can lead to others overhearing what you are doing and seeing what you have in your office.

Training Area Apart from Traffic Area

Keeping your training area apart from the traffic area is critical. If someone walks into your school, and they are immediately in the line of fire for punches, kicks, weapon attacks, even grappling partners toppling into them, then you are asking for a lawsuit. Sooner or later a visitor is going to get hurt.

If the path to the bathroom takes visitors through a workout area and subjects them to danger, you are asking for a problem. If students have to walk through others practicing to get to the dressing rooms, or to the water fountain, or to anything else they need, you are as much as asking for someone to get hurt — and when they do, you will be found negligent.

Important Point: Even if students sign forms assuming the risk of harm, you could be found liable. If the layout of your school gives them no choice but to be in harm’s way during ordinary, necessary activities, then the form may be invalidated because you rendered it impossible for students to see to their own safety.

Either the visitors lounge, bathrooms, water and dressing rooms have to be accessible without entering the floor, or the training floor must have a clear, safe walkway through it. On a tight budget, this can be accomplished by a task as simple as putting cloth tape on the floor about two-and-one-half feet from the wall and designating that area as walkway. Students should then be forbidden to have their training exercises pass over the tape, with punches and kicks stopping short of the tape at all times.

Since a solution is so simple, the Courts may actually find you negligent if you fail to take even these elementary precautions and someone is injured as a result.

Weapons Out of Reach of Visitors

Visitors, especially children, are often enthralled by weapons. They often want to see the weapons up close, to handle the sword, to check the weight of the staff, or to play with the nunchaku. If the weapon’s rack is within easy reach of the visitor’s area, they are likely to do so.

In one school in a single week, this became plain. While the visitor’s lounge was apart from the weapon’s rack, the bathroom was not. Three separate visitors that week stopped by the rack, picked up one weapon or another, and started playing with it. The instructor saw this in seconds and asked them to put the weapons back, but even in those brief moments, an injury could have resulted in a lawsuit. 

They were guests, not students, and there was no paperwork. They were only supposed to use the restroom and get some water. Instead, they played skillessly with some of the most dangerous objects in the school.

Not only should the weapon’s rack be out of reach for visitors, it should be in view of the instructors at all times, whether on the floor or in the office. Weapons are dangerous. Even an exceptional martial arts instructor, an undisputed master of many weapons, managed in a freak accident to seriously injure himself practicing with weapons. So severe was his injury that he required hospitalization.

With one so skilled finding himself in the hospital, imagine what damage someone with no control over the weapon might do. Think not only of harm to himself, but the harm to other visitors and guests when the hotshot teen grabs the nunchaku and swings them right into the face of another visitor! 

Avoid this problem. Keep them out of reach. Only students should even have access, and only students trained in the weapons should have permission to use them. In the case of very dangerous weapons, all sharp-edged or pointed weapons that can easily cut or pierce — and perhaps even nunchaku, three-section staves and other difficult-to-control weapons — should be locked up or stored in “instructor-only” areas such as the office.

Allowing students with no training in a weapon to play with them may eliminate the effectiveness of the assumption of risk forms, since a student cannot adequately provide for his safety or the safety of others if he has no idea what he is doing.

Mirrors

Many schools have mirrors. It should go without saying that mirrors should be professionally secured to the wall. In one studio, the large mirrors were essentially leaning up against the wall, with small screws holding them in place. In another, a large, heavy mirror was affixed to the wall with mounting tape. Fortunately, it didn’t land on anyone when it fell.

Sparring, and certainly weapons practice, must be carefully monitored when there are mirrors adjacent to or near the training area.  One slip with the nunchaku or sai, a moment’s thoughtlessness with a bo, or an aggressive match that sends a student toppling toward the mirror can spell disaster.  When mirrors break, they have a tendency to rain glass shards on anyone in close proximity.

If the mirrors are glued to the wall (professionals will often glue the mirrors with industrial adhesive in addition to any mounting brackets that are used), then a shattered mirror will probably still be held to the wall and only a little glass will fall. You should request this type of mounting from your mirror vendor.    

Naturally, in the event of a broken mirror, the class should be stopped, all students should be instructed to put on shoes or train well away from the broken mirror, and the instructor or staff should see to an immediate and very thorough clean-up. Remember that small splinters of glass can cause extreme discomfort. If you conduct workouts on the ground, the danger is multiplied.  

Imagine a young student who unknowingly gets a few glass splinters on his hand, and later uses that hand to rub his eyes. Blindness could result. Imagine the sheer foolishness of blinding a student, losing the school, losing your home, car and all other assets just because a clean-up job after an accident was not done properly. 

Don’t take chances with broken glass!

Dressing Rooms

Locker rooms are often the preferred changing areas in many schools, but there are some potential problems that may arise. Who supervises the activity in the locker rooms? If young boys and older men are changing together, what security is there that the child will be safe? Imagine the temptation for a molester to find a martial arts school where young boys routinely undress in a locker room, especially a locker room with some privacy. If he signed up for classes, he could gain access to the boys.

If you have locker rooms, people should come and go through them with such frequency that no one can expect to have even a few minutes of certain privacy to do anything to anyone. If students are not constantly moving in and out, instructors or staff ought to.

For legal and security considerations, the type of one-person dressing rooms found at most clothing stores is ideal. The door should be low enough so a small child can change with sufficient privacy, and high enough to afford similar privacy to very tall adults. 

Naturally, students will need some place to put their clothes, and near-floor cubbies or lockers are ideal. An inexpensive alternative is simply designating a place on the floor for students to put their equipment bags. Be certain to keep it away from the workout area so students do not trip or stumble over them during the workouts.

Some students will be too shy to change in these changing rooms, just as some will be too shy to change in locker rooms with others around. These students should be invited to arrive and leave in their training clothes, or they should use the restroom or restroom stalls for changing rooms.

Shelves, Bookcases, Display Cases and Pictures

Some schools have shelves mounted on the wall well above head level to display trophies (at least, those short enough to fit). Bookcases with pictures, and display cases with more trophies and awards, often adorn schools. Certificates and photographs often hang on walls.

All these things must be carefully secured if they will be anywhere near visitors, students or staff. Imagine a visitor leaning back against a wall and bringing down half-a-dozen certificates and photos, with glass shattering on the floor. Imagine a student losing his balance during a workout and falling against a wall, and two or three trophies with marble bases topple down on top of him. Imagine a kid climbing on a shelf to get at some interesting object higher up, and the whole bookcase tumbles down on top of him.

High shelves must be securely mounted, and objects perched on them should also be secured. Mounting tape or adhesive should help. Bookcases must be secured against a wall, possibly bolted to the wall, or kept where young students and guests do not have access to them, such as the office. 

Display cases must likewise be secure, and any sharp edges from cracked glass must be repaired or covered in some manner to prevent cuts. Pictures must be firmly secured on the wall so that they will not fall down even with a sharp impact to the wall, or, if you live in California, an earthquake.

Care of School

Another layout consideration is your ability to care for your school. The layout must make simple tasks such as cleaning, vacuuming and other mundane activities possible. Some have managed an artistic layout, but they cannot get a vacuum cleaner into their crowded lounge, and they cannot get to parts of their floor. Keep in mind what you need to do for maintenance when designing or remodeling a school.

Control

We don’t always have control over the layout of our school. Often, the existing layout is all we have, like it or not. Money will often be the determining factor in most layout decisions. However, sometimes we have a choice. When we move a school, when we open a school, and when we remodel, we have a chance to do something different. When we can control school layout, isn’t it prudent to consider all the issues?

The Best Defense Is a Good Defense

The best defense is having a good defense ready. If an attorney has to contact you to find out what happened in an accident eight months ago, and you are vague because you can’t quite remember, that won’t help your case much. If the attorney asks who else saw it, and you don’t know, and if the attorney needs to know what was done at the scene, and you don’t recall, then your case will be very difficult to prove. 

The other side may have medical records, statements taken immediately following the accident, and pictures of the injury. You need to have your evidence as well. For most minor incidents — bumps and bruises — such detail will be unnecessary. When something serious happens, then you should put together a complete file on the incident. 

Consider yourself your own private investigator. Be careful to collect only “objective” facts, though. That means treating facts without distortion by personal feelings or prejudices. You don’t want to be accused of using your position as the instructor to badger your students into lying, embellishing or shading the facts.

Take note of what happened, who was around, what was done about it and by whom, and an account of the events and possible contributing causes. This will serve as a reminder to you, since memory can be inexact. It may be months before you have to give a “deposition” (testimony), and years may go by before a trial. If you rely on your ability to remember a two-year-old event, then you can expect to be expertly tripped up by a skilled attorney on cross examination.

If you have a good insurance policy, then your insurance company should take care of your legal defense. If you do not have insurance, then you should already have an attorney in mind to work on any case you might have. It might be a student, or a parent of a student, who understands martial arts and has some experience litigating. 

Once you receive a lawsuit, your attorney typically has 30 days to file papers with the Court. If you spend 20 of those 30 days hunting for a decent attorney, then your attorney does not have adequate time to prepare your defense. 

At times, attorney’s have received case files the day before paperwork is due, and they have to rush on paperwork that can determine if you win or lose your case. Cases have practically been forced to settlement for more money than the case was worth, because the attorney wasn’t given the Summons and Complaint in time to prepare the necessary paperwork.

Insurance: What If It Really Is Your Fault?

You will want to take note of your conclusions on any serious accident, since you will have to decide if you are going to settle the case or defend. While we want to focus on avoiding accidents and defending our school if we are sued, we also need to consider our responsibility in some matters.

If you are responsible, tell your insurance company so. Let them know that you really believe that you owe these people, and you would like them paid. This might affect your standing with your insurer, and would probably affect your rates anywhere else you went, but that’s what you pay them premiums to do. If a matter is small and easily within your budget, you might handle it on your own.

Sometimes we make mistakes, and those mistakes can lead to serious repercussions. At times, a matter might even be serious enough to warrant criminal charges. 

During a class, a fairly new student had serious problem with control. The instructor, in an effort to “Teach him a lesson,” unleashed full speed on the student. While none of the strikes were full power, even with protective gear the student was knocked back, hit his head, and had bruised ribs. 

The student took no legal action, but the assault was potentially criminal and could have resulted in civil liability as well. If the family had made a claim, the instructor would have been well-advised to offer to pay for medical expenses.

Sometimes someone else does something criminal, and their ability to do so was a result of our negligence. Consider the case of the young girl sexually molested by the son of the school owner. The son is guilty of a crime, but the school owner could also be found negligent for allowing his son access to the young girls and making a place available to him for such conduct. 

There would be additional factors to consider, such as previous conduct, known tendencies, and the reasonableness of precautions available. Still, the family could sue. The school owner in that situation might want to work out some sort of settlement with the family to cover therapy for the girl or some other form of compensation. 

An attorney should help put together any settlement, since an improperly-worded offer may open the door to all sorts of problems in the future. In fact, a good-hearted, but improperly-done settlement offer could turn something that wasn’t going to be a serious case into a major event. 

A skilled attorney can avoid this situation, but make certain your attorney has some skill at diplomacy and negotiations, since many are overly combative and so focused on being a vigorous advocate for their client that they inadvertently pick fights and turn settlement discussions into Court battles. Some few do it on purpose to collect larger fees, but most simply haven’t got the skill to deal with matters with courtesy and respect for everyone involved. If your insurance company is handling the matter, finding a good attorney is their responsibility.

Your insurance should cover the settlement on the case. If you don’t have insurance, the fair settlement value of a serious matter might be more than you can afford. In that case, you may need to set up a payment plan. Called Structured Settlements, payment-plan settlements allow you to pay over time, and the total amount often does not change, since no interest is applied to the balance. There is also the possibility of obtaining an equity loan, selling a car and buying a less expensive model, or selling some personal property.

The lesson? Have insurance. Period.

Avoiding Negligence

See our comprehensive library of Martial Arts School Insurance Information and Interviews.

The most likely lawsuit brought against a martial arts school is for negligence. Negligence is simply having a duty to do something that will help maintain the safety of those present, and failing to fulfill that duty. Depending upon the State and the ideological bent of the Court in any given area, negligence may be easier or harder to prove.

Some areas of the U.S. are pro-business and understand that certain risks are so remote and fixing them so expensive, that the law does not require those measures be taken. Other areas are so pro-employee/consumer that a business owner may be found liable if someone is hurt in his business or during operations even if every conceivable precaution was taken.

Cases have gone to trial over spilled hot coffee in someone’s lap (it was too hot, the jury decided). On someone slipping and falling on a tile floor after he walked in from the rain (no sign was posted advising people walking in from the rain that the tile would be slippery when wet). Even criminals have won lawsuits when they broke into a business and were injured. It doesn’t matter who is hurt or what they were doing, if the danger existed, the owner was responsible. 

At other times, in other places, what appears to be a strong case is lost at trial or overturned on appeal. A worker intentionally defrauded a customer, then injured the customer’s agent when he tried to repossess the customer’s car that the worker was using illegally. The Court refused to award any damages for the use of the car or the injury to the customer’s agent. There are undoubtedly thousands of what might seem like cases with merit that still lose.

Many lawyers are known to openly admit that the outcome of trial is a “crap shoot,” that it’s a roll of the dice and you never know what’s going to happen. To some extent, that’s true. If a case goes to trial, it means that both sides are committed to the fight, that both sides think they can win. When two good lawyers (or teams of lawyers) think enough of their case to fight it out in Court, the outcome is difficult to predict. However, 95% of all cases settle before trial.

Avoiding Accidents

Taking the issue of accidents step-by-step, the first general issue to consider is avoiding accidents. No matter the present situation with documentation or insurance, if no accidents occur, then there will be no claims. There are three key areas to consider: 

1. Safety of the Training Area.

2. Safety of the Training Equipment.

3. Safety of the Training Techniques.

Safety of the Training Area

The first thing to do is evaluate the safety of your training area. Any potential dangers need to be addressed. If there is a tear in the mat that could catch someone’s foot, then it should be taped down or the mat replaced. Look at your school from the standpoint of a nit-picking safety inspector. Do not dismiss things as “good enough,” since, in a court of law, “good enough” often isn’t. Carefully explore both the actual training area and the rest of your premises.

Safety of the Training Techniques

Martial arts, by its very nature, bears an element of danger. Students will get minor injuries through the course of their training. The injuries might be as slight as a hyperextended joint or a strained muscle, or as serious as a concussion or fractured bone. 

Combat systems are especially prone to injuries, and training could not be made entirely safe without sacrificing the effectiveness of that training. The question to ask is this: Are there any unnecessary dangers in my training policies?

Some common dangers:

– Weapons Practice in or near traffic areas (a traffic area is not just a walkway, but anywhere that other students move through, even if they are training as well).

– Students wandering near or through other students’ practice areas.

 – Students holding kicking shields or heavy bags improperly (such as in front of the face, where they will hit themselves if their partner hits the shield hard.)

 – Students holding kicking shields or heavy bags for others who hit too hard for them.

 – Students training with sharp weapons without sufficient skill (even masters with decades of experience have nearly killed themselves practicing with combat-quality weapons).

 – Sparring with excessive contact (often as a result of students sparring at a speed too fast for their level of control or a match getting out of hand).

 – Sparring partners using techniques that cannot be safely performed in a sparring match (more than one full-speed shootfighting bout ended with a crippling injury because techniques were used that are difficult to control in a match).

 – Rolling or falling on a hard floor while learning how to fall (recommendation: use a mat to learn, then the hard floor once some proficiency is developed).

 – Wrist Locks, throws or self-defense skills practiced too hard (recommendation: practice very gently — even too gently — until you learn an individual training partner’s pain and injury thresholds).

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