In the United States, a public school (or state school) is supported by public funds, such as taxes. These schools are generally primary or secondary schools, and they educate all children within the school district free of charge.
Generally speaking, public schools have set rules which govern the provision of safe and hazard-free environments for their students. Because of this, liability for injury of children at schools is largely based on a negligence cause of action.
Negligence is the legal theory allowing injured parties to recover for the carelessness of others. A person is considered to be negligent if they were careless, given the circumstances of the situation, when compared to another person. Negligence has four major parts that must be shown in order to recover for injuries:
- Duty: A duty is a responsibility one person owes to another person. Generally speaking, people going about their day owe a baseline duty of reasonable care. Reasonable care refers to the amount of care an ordinary and prudent person would use under the same circumstances;
- Breach: A breach occurs when a person’s care falls below the level required by their duty;
- Causation: Simply put, this means that the breach of a duty must be the cause of injury. Essentially, the legal test for causation is ‘but for’ one party’s actions, the injury would not have occurred; and
- Damages: There must be some sort of quantifiable or calculable harm that occurred. The specific type of injury can vary, from property damage to lost wages.
The obvious example of negligence is personal injury, such as a car crash when one driver was speeding during inclement weather. However, negligence is also a flexible idea that can appear in many contexts. Emotional harm, such as post traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) developing due to negligent conduct, would also be cause for a lawsuit.
What Can the School Be Liable For?
When a child is injured at a public school, school officials generally have a duty to help in two situations: injuries that are caused by other students, and injuries resulting from unsafe or hazardous premises or equipment. Specifically, school authorities have a duty to adequately supervise children. Additionally, they have a duty to ensure that areas such as stairs and playgrounds are hazard-free.
In terms of the scope of school responsibility for student’s safety, a public school or teacher may be held liable for injuries that a student encounters due to lack of supervision. Generally speaking, there are two main questions to be asked in cases involving lack of supervision:
- Did the school have a duty to supervise the student?
- Was this duty satisfied?
While a public school is not an insurer of a student’s safety, a public school does have a duty to exercise reasonable supervisory care for the safety of students. As such, they may be liable for injuries resulting from the failure to supervise.
A school does have a duty to supervise during lunch or recess periods, based on the theory that injury is generally foreseeable when young people in groups are left unattended during free periods. On a similar note, a school may have a duty to supervise children before or after school hours when they are in groups in which dangerous activities could be reasonably expected to occur. An example of this would be school sponsored sporting events.
It is important to note that the duty to supervise is limited only to those injuries that are foreseeable. If the injury is not something that would generally be expected from the event or activity which caused the injury, the school cannot be held liable for a failure to supervise students. An example of this would be how one court found that it is unforeseeable that a student would be intentionally kicked by another student, following a basketball game.
There is no liability for injuries if proper supervision could not have prevented the injury. An example of this would be a case in which a student was hit in the eye with a paperclip. The court considering the case found that proper supervision of the children could have prevented the injury. Sudden, spontaneous acts may still give rise to liability due to the fact that just the presence of a supervisor may have prevented the act.
Additionally, a school official will have breached their duty of care to a student if they knew about an unsafe situation or condition, and failed to take appropriate measures in order to address the situation.
What Are Some Examples of Common Child Injuries at School?
Some of the most common situations that may result in a negligence claim include:
- Injuries resulting from harassment or bullying by another student;
- Inadequate planning in terms of emergency evacuations;
- Lack of supervision during lunch, recess, and in play areas;
- Disregard of safety measures for school buses and nearby traffic;
- Deficiencies associated with food preparation, and health and sanitation standards;
- Failure to provide medication when required;
- Unsafe structures or equipment that the officials were aware of but failed to repair or warn; and
- Allowing strangers to enter school premises.
Extracurricular activities generally do not present negligence issues, as these types of activities generally require parents to sign a permission slip or waiver acknowledging that the child is assuming the risks associated with these activities. Examples include sports, field trips, and nighttime dances.
What Should I Do If My Child Is Injured in School?
When you wish to file a lawsuit against a school for negligence, you must first begin by filing a complaint first. Suing an educational institution such as a public school, a school board, or a school district, requires filing with an administrative law agency such as the Department of Education. An investigation into the incident will be conducted, after which the agency will issue an appropriate remedy such as monetary damages. Alternatively, they may order an injunction requiring the school to adjust its relevant policies.
In some cases, the parent may wish to sue an individual school official, as opposed to the institution. The dispute then becomes an issue of vicarious liability, which will involve a determination of whether the school official was acting within their prescribed scope of duty. It must also be determined whether the official or the school itself will be held liable.
What Is a Parent’s Role in Ensuring Their Child’s Safety?
It is important to note that while the school does have some responsibility for child safety, parents also have a duty to ensure that their children will not create additional liability. They can fulfill this duty by informing the proper officials of unique needs that their child may have, especially those involving medication or health issues.
A parent’s failure to provide for their children’s safety can prevent them from recovering for injuries, or reduce the amount of monetary damages available to them.
Do I Need a Lawyer If My Child Was Injured At School?
If your child was injured at school, and you believe the injury was caused by negligence or vicarious liability, you should contact an experienced and local government lawyer.
An experienced government attorney can help you determine your best legal options according to your state’s specific laws regarding the subject, and can also help you file a claim with the appropriate agency before pursuing a lawsuit.