Whether a child (or the parents of a child) injured on school grounds can sue the school for damages depends on several factors. This article discusses those factors, including the most important question of whether the legal concept of "sovereign immunity" might prevent a lawsuit altogether.
Most government agencies, including states and the federal government, have immunity from lawsuits, which means that they cannot be sued. This is called “sovereign immunity” when it is applied to the federal and state governments, and “governmental immunity” when it is applied to city, county and other smaller governments -- although “sovereign immunity” is often used as a blanket term.
Typically, a public school district will be considered an agency of the local municipal government. Although they are immune, most government agencies make exceptions to immunity and allow themselves to be sued under specific conditions. However, there may be narrow constraints, for example the negligence must have been “gross” (i.e.very negligent) or a municipality must have purchased insurance to cover the type of lawsuit. Aside from these broader guidelines of gross negligence and insurance, the exact circumstances under which a plaintiff can sue for injuries on school grounds can vary greatly from state to state. The state government sets the rules for when smaller agencies, such as school districts, within the state can be sued -- so the rules, fortunately, do not vary within a state.
To learn more about the special rules for these types of cases, see AllLaws's section on Injury Claims Against the Government.
Aside from sovereign immunity creating narrow circumstances for suing a school, or preventing a lawsuit entirely, there are also extra steps and shorter deadlines when a school or other government agency is a defendant in a lawsuit.
Most states have a very short statute of limitations for when a plaintiff can sue for a personal injury caused by a government agency, typically from six months to two years. Most states also require the plaintiff to notify the responsible agency of the intention to sue before the case can begin. Depending on the state, this means that a plaintiff must identify and notify the responsible agency the he or she is going to sue and the details of the suit within six months of the accident, for example. Any later, and no lawsuit will be allowed.
"Premises liability" cases are lawsuits based on injuries caused by a defect or other hazard on the school grounds, for example slipping on a puddle in a bathroom. Sovereign immunity rules may allow a lawsuit for premises liability, but typically only if the hazard was the result of very negligent actions or if the school district carries applicable insurance. Some states may have sovereign immunity rules that prevent premises liability cases against schools entirely.
Perhaps the most frequent negligence claim against a school is negligent supervision, i.e. if the person in charge had done their job right, the injury would not have happened. Negligence claims are typically not treated differently than premises liability claims under sovereign immunity rules. In other words, unless there is insurance or someone was very negligent in failing to supervise properly, or committed some other very negligent act, suing for damages will probably not be an option.
If it appears that the school will be protected from a lawsuit by sovereign immunity, no settlement will be offered. However, sovereign immunity rules can be complex, so neither side may be entirely confident how a court might rule on the immunity issue. If the facts of the case make the application of immunity rules likely but unclear, a school might be willing to settle for a reduced amount to avoid the risk of liability.
If the school does have applicable insurance, a settlement is far more likely, as long as the case isn’t frivolous. As mentioned earlier, many states do not apply immunity to municipalities if the municipalities carry insurance. So not only will an insured school have the means to pay a settlement, but it will also face the real risk of losing an expensive lawsuit. Keep in mind, however, that even if a plaintiff is permitted to sue a school because of insurance or gross negligence, if the proper procedures and deadlines haven’t been followed, a lawsuit will not be permitted and the school will therefore not see the need to settle.