Parents want to know their children are safe in school. While accidents in schools are inevitable, the law says school administrators and teachers must do everything reasonably possible to minimize any accidents and injuries.
When a child is injured, one of the first things parents wonder is, who’s responsible? Who’s liable for paying the child’s medical bills? To answer these questions requires an understanding of how the law regarding negligence applies to school administrators, teachers, and your child.
Overview of School Liability
To ensure students receive adequate protection from accidental injuries, the courts place upon school administrators and teachers a legal duty of care (obligation). This duty of care means schools must do everything reasonably possible to protect their students from foreseeable harm, injury, and death.
This duty includes providing a safe environment for students. Authorities must repair or eliminate dangerous conditions in a timely way and make sure students receive proper supervision while they’re on school grounds, on school-provided buses, and while they’re off school grounds during school-sponsored, extracurricular activities.
When a school fails to protect its students from foreseeable harm, the law says it acted negligently. A school’s negligence makes it responsible, or liable, for the injured student’s damages. Damages include the student’s medical, chiropractic and therapy bills, out-of-pocket expenses for medications, crutches, slings, hospital parking lot fees, etc., lost wages (if the student had a part-time job), and for the student’s (not the parents’) pain and suffering.
The legal doctrine of in loco parentis
In loco parentis (a Latin term meaning “in place of the parent”) is a legal doctrine that applies to school administrators and teachers. The doctrine means that while a child is at school or away on a school-sponsored, extracurricular activity, the teacher has the responsibility and duties of the student’s parents.
While in loco parentis gives teachers latitude in supervising students and student activities, the legal doctrine also opens the door to making teachers and administrators liable for accidents and injuries students sustain while under their supervision.
While the doctrine is generally applicable to teachers and administrators, it is subject to interpretation by the courts. They weigh each accident at school separately according to the circumstances of the case.
The prudent teacher theory
While in loco parentis defines the general duties and responsibilities of a parent, it doesn’t conclude whether an administrator or teacher failed in his or her responsibilities and whether that failure constitutes negligence. The courts determine negligence and resulting liability under the prudent teacher doctrine.
The prudent teacher doctrine asks what a prudent teacher in the same school or at a similar school would do under the same circumstances that led to the student’s injury. Did the teacher act prudently?
To decide whether a teacher acted prudently, the courts take into account several factors:
- Did the school have an overall plan of supervision and protection for the students?
- Did the teacher use reasonable care to ensure the student wasn’t injured?
- Was the event that led to the student’s injury foreseeable? (Meaning the school administrator or teacher knew or should have known a dangerous condition existed or the students weren’t supervised properly.)
Example: Student hit by a car
The Junction Point Elementary School permitted its students to play in the school’s courtyard during lunch periods and at recess. The school also used the courtyard as a parking lot for school visitors.
One day, during lunch period, a number of students went into the courtyard to play. There were also a number of visitors’ cars parked in the courtyard. At about that time, one of the visitors got in her car to drive out of the courtyard. As she began to drive, a student, while running to catch a ball, collided with her moving car. The student was seriously injured.
The child’s parents filed a lawsuit against the school alleging the school was negligent. The lawsuit said the school’s permitting visitors’ cars to park in the same courtyard where students played was a dangerous condition. The parents further claimed the school was negligent in not having a teacher in the courtyard to supervise the children properly. The court agreed and ruled in favor of the parents and their son.
In its decision, the court said the school did not have a plan in place that prohibited visitors from parking in the courtyard adjacent to where students played. The court said a prudent school administrator should have known permitting cars in the same area where young children played created a dangerous condition. The danger was, therefore, foreseeable. The court added the school’s failure to require a teacher in the courtyard was a lack of proper supervision.
Not all accidents at school are the result of school negligence. Sometimes injuries occur despite the administrators’ and teachers’ best efforts. When school administrators and teachers do everything reasonably possible to protect their students, the courts will hesitate to assess negligence against them.
Example: Assault in school
During a break in periods at Chaminal High School, one of the school’s varsity football players came upon another student. The football player was 6’2″ and weighed about 200 pounds. The other student was 5’6″ and weighed about 140 pounds. There was enmity between the two stemming from a disagreement over a female student’s affections.
Suddenly and without provocation, the football player punched the other student in the face, breaking his nose. The police subsequently arrested the football player and charged him with assault.
The parents of the injured student filed a lawsuit against the school alleging negligence. In their lawsuit, they said the school breached (violated) its duty of care (obligation) by failing to supervise the aggressive student properly.
The school defended itself by providing proof two teachers constantly monitored the halls. This system of monitoring was the same as other high schools in the area employed to supervise students. The school offered as further evidence the records of both students. Neither student had a history of violence.
While the school admitted there were some rumors about the disagreement over the female student in question, they said this was perfectly normal and commonly occurred at all high schools.
The court ruled against the injured boy’s parents and in favor of the school. In its decision, the court said the evidence showed the school had a proper supervision plan. There was no indication either student had a history of violence, and therefore the supervision of the students was proper. The court went on to say the violent outburst was an aberration.
Because there was no indication of violence from the football player, the assault was not a foreseeable event. Without evidence of foreseeability or lack of supervision, the court concluded the school wasn’t liable for the student’s criminal act. The only action the parents had, according to the court, was to file a lawsuit against the football player and his parents personally. Under most cases, parents are liable for the actions of their children.
Proving Your Case: Evidence
If you believe your child’s injury was due to school negligence, you need to gather evidence. Your evidence must include proof the school failed to repair or eliminate a dangerous condition or the school failed to supervise the students properly. In addition, you must prove the accident at school was the direct cause of your child’s injuries. Finally, you need proof of your child’s damages.
Photographs or videos of the circumstances causing your child’s injuries are quite valuable. Make sure you engage the date and time stamp function on your digital camera before starting. If you don’t have a digital camera, use your cell phone. Take multiple close-ups and wide-angle shots of the dangerous condition and of your child’s injury. You want to make as indisputable as possible the danger that caused the injury.
Witness statements, especially those from independent witnesses, are often vital in proving your claim. Good Samaritans who came to your child’s rescue can describe in detail exactly what happened. School nurses who treated your child immediately after the accident are very helpful, although getting them to volunteer a statement about the injury and treatment may present difficulties. (You can ask for a copy of the nurses’ medical record for the child.)
It isn’t necessary to have the witnesses’ statements in affidavit form or notarized. Just ask your witnesses to write down what they saw and then ask them to sign and date their statements at the bottom of the last page. If true, make sure you ask the witnesses to clearly state your child didn’t contribute in any way to her own injuries.
While photographs and witness statements make valuable evidence, unless your child’s injuries resulted in medical or therapy bills, out-of-pocket expenses for medications, crutches, etc., lost wages (if your high school student had a part-time job), or pain and suffering, you don’t have a case.
You can’t ask for compensation unless your child has proof of damages. You can’t sue a school just because you believe their actions were negligent. Their negligence must have resulted in damages that are calculable and provable.
To prove damages requires medical records linking your child’s injuries to the negligent action. For instance, if your child has a broken leg from falling on a slippery floor at school, you need copies of her hospital medical chart to show the fall directly caused the break. You’ll also need copies of medical or therapy bills, receipts for medications, and verification of lost wages, if any.
Insurance Companies and Government Tort Claims
There are public schools and private schools. If your child attends a public school and is injured, you have to file your claim through the government or tort claim agency available in your state. Ask the school principal or an administrator for the name and address of the appropriate government agency. Depending on the school, the head office may have the form you need.
Move quickly; there are specific deadlines for filing injury claims against government entities, sometimes as little as 30 days. Missing the filing deadline can result in outright denial of the claim.
If your child was hurt at a private school, you can probably get the school’s insurance company’s contact information directly from the principal or school administrator. In most cases, the school will help and cooperate in processing your claim.
When you make contact with the insurance company, be sure to have all your evidence prepared for the claims adjuster handling your child’s case. The adjuster may ask to take your child’s recorded statement. You don’t have to agree, especially because your child may not fully understand the nature of the statement and its implications.
When to Hire an Attorney
If your child’s injuries are minor, referred to as “soft tissue” injuries, such as minor cuts and abrasions (scrapes), sprains or strains, etc., you can probably handle the claim yourself without an attorney. However, if they are the more serious hard injuries, such as broken bones, head trauma, deep gashes, scarring, etc., you need the services of an experienced personal injury attorney. There’s just too much at stake.
If you handle the claim yourself and make a mistake, you can jeopardize the entire claim. Your attorney has years of experience and can file a lawsuit, subpoena school records, take the depositions (recorded, sworn statements) of teachers, and more.
In the end, with serious injury claims there’s a much better chance you’ll get a significantly higher settlement using a lawyer. At the very least, meet with several personal injury attorneys in your area. Most don’t charge for initial office visits. Remember to bring all your evidence.
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