Legal: Injuries at School – Who is Responsible?
As the school year begins, many parents have concerns about the safety of their student while being present in a school setting. Schools are large operations, with hundreds, if not thousands of individuals interacting daily. These interactions take place in buses, classrooms, hallways, sports fields, and many other locations that you may or may not even be able to imagine. Inevitably, with this much activity going on, individuals are going to get hurt. Most injuries are minor of course, but occasionally, there can be severe injuries, or even deaths that occur in schools. That begs the question, who is responsible when somebody is injured in school? The answer, as with most legal issues, varies greatly depending on where the incident occurred, how the incident occurred and who caused the injury.
Public Schools (including Charter Schools)
Texas, like most states, provides a high level of protection from lawsuits to its public schools and the employees of those schools. The theory is that schools are funded by taxpayer dollars, and a lawsuit is an unfair burden on taxpayers. Additionally, if schools were subject to standard liability rules (like your neighborhood big box department store), one could imagine that many lawsuits would come about that would take valuable time from teachers and administrators who are working to accomplish the best academic program for each of their students.
Under the legal doctrine of “sovereign immunity”, a public school in Texas can rarely be sued for injuries sustained by students at school. If your child is at school, for example, and falls down the stairs because a custodian mopped the floor and didn’t warn anyone, the responsibility for the child’s injuries lies with the child (and the parents of course). There is no recourse against the school or the custodian and most likely the school will not provide compensation for any medical expenses or other damages due to this fall on the school’s stairway.
Because no law can seem to exist without exceptions, there are a few that come into play for schools. Most notably automobile accidents, including buses. Sovereign immunity does not shield a school from liability when an employee of the school district negligently operates a motor vehicle. Therefore, if you or your student are struck by a moving bus or another type of school district motor vehicle that is in motion, then you can seek compensation for injuries so long as you can establish it was the school district’s employee that was negligent in causing the incident. Lawyers over the years have attempted numerous times to stretch the definition of “negligent operation of a motor vehicle” to more than just vehicle collisions. For example, if a student falls down the stairs of a bus while exiting and the bus is not moving, the district will be protected by immunity. Even though the student has severe injuries, because the bus was at a full and complete stop and not being operated as a motor vehicle at the time of the incident, there is no liability for the school district.
The other largest exception is that the State of Texas immunity does not shield a district from federal laws, such as violations of the Americans with Disability Act, Title IX or anti-discrimination laws. For example, if a child suffers from a disability, and the district does not accommodate for the child’s disability, the district may be liable for damages. Furthermore, envision an attack on a disabled student by other pupils in his classroom. Imagine that the staff saw the scuffle and completely ignored the altercation by taking no action while the student continued to be physically assaulted. One would almost assuredly be barred from suing in state court due to immunity, but a federal court lawsuit for a violation of federal law may well be an available option. This is not to say such suits are easy – in fact, they are extremely difficult, and districts fight those lawsuits with extreme vigor. Additionally, federal courts can be difficult to navigate and are notoriously slow even if the lawsuit alleges that there were deliberate violations of anti-discrimination laws.
Private schools in Texas do not have the protection of sovereign immunity, and thus are subject to lawsuits as with any other type of business entity. If a child is hurt because they fall down the stairs because a custodian didn’t put up a warning sign (i.e., “wet floor”), that school may be liable for the child’s injuries. Private schools, as such, often carry comprehensive insurance that covers injuries for students hurt on campus (that often compensates for medical bills up to a certain limit without regard to fault). Likewise, private schools are also subject to federal laws that protect individuals from discrimination, violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title IX.
Injuries at School Caused by Third Persons/Parties
Visualize your child at school walking through the parking lot when another student (a bully) approaches them and physically assaults your child. During the assault, your child sustains an injury and needs immediate medical attention. The bully, as one would hope, is not protected by the school’s immunity. You can still bring an action against the bully to recover medical expenses and other damages that your child may have sustained. While it may seem somewhat odd to think about suing a minor child, it occurs with regularity throughout the state.
Likewise, suppliers and vendors are not protected by government immunity. A vivid illustration of this would be when multiple students become ill due to a food supplier that delivers vegetables that contain listeria to the school cafeteria. The school is protected, but the supplier is not and would be subject to standard liability rules. Another situation that has occurred is while attending a school dance, a student became injured when a speaker fell and struck the student in the head. Had the school placed the speaker the school would be immune from liability; however, in this case, the school had hired a third-party company to come in and setup for the dance. That company ended up being liable for the injuries.
Sending your children out the door and back to school is often scary enough without contemplating who is responsible if your child is injured. However, the reality is that injuries do occur and who is potentially responsible for them varies widely from situation to situation. If your child is injured at school or a school event, talk to an attorney familiar with such claims to see if you have an avenue to recoup expenses and obtain compensation for your child.