School Liability for Student Injuries

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

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

When a child is injured at school, it's not always clear who (if anyone) might be legally responsible. Certain accidents are unavoidable, but some injuries on school grounds are due to unsafe conditions, or the action (or inaction) of school officials, staff, or even other students.

Injuries Caused by Dangerous Conditions

A school's responsibility for unsafe property conditions is a type of "premises liability." School officials have the responsibility to maintain a safe environment for students, since the 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. School officials have the responsibility to prevent foreseeable dangers from harming students. Dangerous conditions on school premises may include faulty playground equipment, slippery floors, unsanitary conditions, and the presence of lead or other toxic materials.

Injuries Caused by Others

Under personal injury law, teachers and other school officials owe a special duty of care to the students in their charge. As part of that duty, school officials must take reasonable steps to keep students from harming one another. At the minimum, this responsibility includes hiring enough staff to properly supervise the students on the premises. All school district employees (administration, faculty, facilities personnel) have a duty to take reasonable steps to protect students and ensure their student safety. On a related issue, schools must use appropriate care and conduct adequate background checks when hiring teachers, coaches, and other staff. A school could be civilly liable for the sexual abuse of a student if the school knew (or should have known under the circumstances) that the offending school employee had a history of inappropriate conduct.

The issue of bullying and injuries caused by fellow students is a bit murkier. But typically, a school may be on the legal hook if it had notice of a dangerous situation and failed to take reasonable steps to prevent foreseeable harm.

The Importance of Foreseeability

Cases involving injuries on school grounds often turn on whether or not 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 proper precautionary measures. For example, if a child is injured on a play structure, and it becomes clear that even cursory inspection of the structure would have revealed a defect or danger, the school would likely be on the legal hook for the child's injuries. Learn more about foreseeability and liability for injury.

Notable Exceptions to School Liability

Some important exceptions often apply when it comes to a school's liability for a student's injuries. First, 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. This is especially true if efforts were made to keep people off school property during non-school hours (fencing and locked gates, for example).

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

Public Schools and Immunity From Liability

A lawsuit against a private school won't run up against this issue, but if you're trying to hold a public school, public school district, or public school employee or official liable for a student's injuries, your case could need to clear a few procedural hurdles. That's because as government agencies, public school districts typically have immunity from liability for certain kinds of alleged harm. That immunity has been conditionally waived as long as injury claimants follow a strict set of rules for notifying the government of the claim and providing details about the underlying incident within a statutorily-mandated time period. But failure to follow the rules can result in loss of your right to get compensation for injuries and other damages.

Bottom line: If you're considering bringing an injury case involving an incident at a public school, it's probably a good idea to discuss your situation (and your options) with an experienced personal injury lawyer.

Learn more about personal injury cases involving children.

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