Injured at School: Liability and Immunity from Lawsuits

Who is responsible when a child is injured at school? Here are the basic ways legal liability could play out.

Injuries on school grounds are fairly common. One study cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 80% of elementary school children visit the nurse because of injuries at school. Some accidents are unavoidable, but some injuries on school grounds are due to unsafe physical conditions or the actions of other students or staff. Read on to learn about the issues of legal liability.

Injuries Caused by Dangerous Physical Conditions

Schools have the responsibility to maintain a safe environment for students. School officials act  in loco parentis, which is just a fancy way of saying "in the place of parents," when children are in their care at school. They have the responsibility to prevent foreseeable dangers from harming students. Dangerous conditions on school premises may include hazards like unsafe playground equipment, frayed electrical wires in classrooms, slippery floors caused by leaking roofs, unsanitary cafeteria conditions, and mold or other toxic materials.

Injuries Caused by Others

Schools must take reasonable steps to keep students from harming one another. At the minimum, this responsibility includes hiring enough staff to supervise the students on the premises. Teachers, recess monitors, hall monitors, bus drivers, and crossing guards serve the purpose of ensuring student safety.

Additionally, schools must use care when hiring teachers, coaches, and other staff. They have a duty not to expose students to dangerous adults. For example, a school could be liable for the sexual abuse of a student if the school knew that the offending school official had a history of molesting children but continued to employ the official.

The Meaning of Premises Liability

A school’s responsibility for injuries occurring on its grounds is a type of "premises liability." In premises liability, the person in control of the property is accountable for certain injuries that happen on the property. Premises liability cases involve three basic elements:

First, the person being sued must be in  control of the property  where the injury occurred. In school liability cases, the school district has authority over the school grounds.

Second, the person who was hurt must be the type of person that the landowner or possessor  expected to be on the property. Schools obviously expect students to be on school property during school hours, so this is never an issue with injuries to students.

Third, the person in charge of the premises must have been  negligent. Usually this means that the defendant knew or should have known of a danger but failed to take reasonable steps to protect the people on the premises. In the case of an injury on school grounds, the school may have failed to properly supervise the students or failed to maintain a safe environment for them.

The Importance of Foreseeability

Often cases involving injuries on school grounds turn on whether the injury was foreseeable. Negligence on the part of the school is most apparent in cases where the school knew of a specific danger but failed to take any precautionary measures. For example, a school that knew its monkey bars were structurally unsound but failed to do anything about it could be liable if a child broke an arm while playing on the bars during recess.

Similarly, a school that knew of a notorious bully could be liable if teachers and staff failed to supervise that aggressive student and he beat another student in the cafeteria. Even if a school is unaware of a specific bully, it could be liable for an injured child hurt by a fight on the playground if the school provided no supervision for the children there. The school has a duty to protect its students from foreseeable harm on its premises.

Notable Exceptions to School Liability

Some important exceptions apply to a school’s liability for a student’s injuries.

A school generally will not be liable for injuries that occur on school property outside school hours or outside school-sponsored events. For example, if on a Saturday morning a girl pushes a boy off the top of a school playground slide and the boy is injured, the school will not be liable. It had no responsibility to supervise children on the playground on Saturday morning if it was not sponsoring an event there at that time.

Another important exception to a school’s liability for injuries involves organized sports. If a student twists an ankle while playing football, the parents of the child cannot sue the school for negligence because student athletes assume the normal risks involved in sports activities.

Public School Immunity

In the past, state laws gave public schools immunity from student injury suits because courts considered schools to be performing a governmental role. Now many states have changed the older laws and opened up public schools to suits in certain cases. Presently, state laws regarding public school immunity vary.

Some states hold public schools responsible for student injuries caused by school negligence. Other states allow recovery against public schools only if the schools acted willfully and recklessly. If you are considering bringing a case against a public school, it is important to know whether the law of your state shields the school from liability for the type of injury your child suffered. Whether you can successfully sue the school will depend on the law of your state and the specific facts of your case.

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