Liability for School Accidents and Injuries: How to Pursue Compensation

Kids are injured every day in public and private schools. Find out how to file an injury claim and get the compensation your child deserves for an accident at school.

More than 9 million children end up in the emergency room every year, with almost 3 million of those from fall injuries. ¹

More than 20,000 children under the age of 14 suffer traumatic brain injuries each year, with most accidents happening at school. ²

Parents want to know their children are safe in school. While accidents at school are bound to happen, school administrators and teachers must do everything reasonably possible to minimize accidents and injuries.

Common Causes of Injuries at School

Every child is unique, and the circumstances leading to a school injury will be different for each child. While the details may vary, here’s an overview of the most common causes of child injuries at school.

Slip and Fall: Slip and fall accidents are a very common cause of physical injuries to schoolchildren. Children can fall due to ice and snow, broken or missing handrails on stairs, slippery gym floors, falling from bleachers, and more.

Playground Injuries: Playground accidents can stem from a lack of adult supervision, poorly maintained grounds, and faulty or broken playground equipment.

Sports Injuries: Physical sports will always come with a risk of physical injuries. However, when your child is injured due to inadequate coaching or adult supervision, or poorly maintained equipment, the school may be liable.

Fights: As many as one in four students report being in a fight on school grounds, at school functions, or while traveling to and from school each year.

Bullies: Children of all ages suffer from physical, psychological, and emotional injuries inflicted by bullies at school.

Food Poisoning: Children may be sickened by food that was improperly stored or prepared, contamination from kitchen workers with communicable diseases, or tainted food from an outside vendor.

Disasters: The school may be responsible for injuries that occurred because of lack of planning, failure to carry out established plans for evacuations or sheltering in place, and failure to timely notify emergency responders.

School Bus Accidents: Children can be injured in school bus accidents caused by driver error, inadequate bus driver training, poorly maintained or malfunctioning buses, and through the fault of the other driver involved in the crash.

Exposure to Toxins: Children may be exposed to asbestos or lead in older buildings if the school failed to remove the dangerous substances or prevent children from using the toxic building.

A School’s Duty to Protect Your Child

To ensure students receive adequate protection, 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 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.

It helps to understand some terms used by lawmakers and insurance companies:

  • “Duty of Care” means the school’s obligation to protect the children under their care from harm.
  • “Negligence” happens when a school administrator, teacher, coach, bus driver, or another employee fails to act responsibly or does something no reasonable person would do.
  • “Liability” means responsibility. The negligent school system is usually liable for the injured child’s damages.
  • “Damages” for a child’s injuries include medical costs, out-of-pocket medical expenses, and pain and suffering. Children with permanent injuries may also seek loss of future wages and future medical expenses.

Teacher Duties: in loco parentis

In loco parentis (a Latin term meaning “in place of the parent”) is a legal principle that applies to school administrators and teachers. It means that while a child is at school or a school-sponsored activity, the teacher has the responsibility and duties of the student’s parents.

While in loco parentis gives teachers some leeway in supervising students and student activities, the doctrine also opens the door to making teachers and administrators responsible for injuries students sustain while under their supervision.

Negligence and Intentional Harm to Children

While in loco parentis defines the general duties and responsibilities of a parent, it doesn’t conclude whether an administrator or teacher failed in their responsibilities and whether that failure constitutes negligence.

Prudent Teacher Doctrine

The courts determine negligence and resulting liability under the prudent teacher doctrine, that is, whether the teacher did something, or failed to do something that any prudent teacher at a similar school would do under the same circumstances that led to the student’s injury.

Several factors come into play when deciding whether a teacher acted prudently:

  1. Did the school have an overall plan of supervision and protection for the students?
  2. Did the teacher use reasonable care to ensure the student wasn’t injured?
  3. Was the event that led to the student’s injury foreseeable? A foreseeable event means the school administrator or teacher knew or should have known a dangerous condition existed or the students weren’t properly supervised.

Example: Child Injured During Recess

A small 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, some students went into the courtyard to play during recess. There were several visitors’ cars parked in the courtyard.

While the children were playing, a visitor got in her car to leave. As she began to drive, a student, while running to catch a ball, collided with the moving car. The student was seriously injured.

The child’s parents filed a lawsuit against the school. The lawsuit said the school was negligent for creating a dangerous condition by allowing cars to park in the same courtyard where students played. The parents further claimed the school was negligent in not having a teacher in the courtyard to properly supervise the children.

The court agreed and ruled in favor of the parents and their child.

Not all accidents at school are the result of teacher negligence. Sometimes injuries occur despite the administrators’ and teachers’ best efforts. When school employees do everything reasonably possible to protect their students, they may not be found negligent.

Example: Teen Attacked in School

Rob was a high school junior who was looking forward to his upcoming date with Peggy, a girl he’d met in math class. Rob didn’t know that Peggy had recently broken up with Frank.

During a break between classes, Rob was at his locker when Frank walked up to him. Suddenly and without provocation, Frank punched Rob in the face, breaking his nose. Rob never had a chance to defend himself.

The police were called. Frank was arrested and charged with assault.

Rob’s parents filed a lawsuit against the school alleging negligence. In their lawsuit, they said the school breached its duty of care by failing to supervise the aggressive student properly.

The school defended itself by providing proof that two teachers constantly monitored the halls, in keeping with the policy of all schools in the district. The school offered as further evidence the records of both students. Neither student had a history of violence.

While the school admitted there was talk among the students that Frank was upset over his breakup with Peggy, they said this was perfectly normal and commonly occurred at all high schools.

Rob’s parents lost their case. The court ruled that the school took reasonable precautions to monitor the halls. With no prior evidence of violence and no other warning, the school could not foresee that Frank would physically attack Rob. The school wasn’t negligent and could not be held liable.

Rob’s parents could not pursue the school for compensation, but they have the right to file a lawsuit against Frank and his parents. In certain situations, parents can be found liable for the actions of their children.

Intentional Harmful Acts Against Children

“Intentional Tort” is a legal term for a deliberate action that results in harm to another person. Injuries to children because of intentional acts by a teacher, coach, or any other school staff member often lead to lawsuits by parents, and in some cases, criminal charges against the at-fault adult.

Sexual Abuse: Child sexual abuse includes inappropriate physical contact with a child, or encouraging the child to touch the adult inappropriately, showing pornography to a child, exposing an adult’s genitals to a child, and inappropriately watching a child undress or use the bathroom.

Assault and Battery: Assault can include hitting; grabbing; twisting hands, arms, or fingers; and pinching. No direct contact is necessary if the child is in fear for their safety because of the adult’s threatening behavior.

False Imprisonment: Imprisonment can include tying children to chairs, locking a child in a closet or small space, taping the child’s mouth closed, or in any way physically confining a child.

Promptly alert law enforcement if your child has been deliberately harmed at school. Then contact an experienced personal injury attorney to help protect your child’s future.

Strong Injury Claims Need Good 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.

You’ll need to show how the school directly caused your child’s injuries, and you’ll need to gather proof of those injuries.

Photographs: Photographs or videos of the circumstances causing your child’s injuries are critical. Using your smartphone or digital camera, take as many close-up and wide pictures of the dangerous condition as you safely can. Take pictures of your child’s injuries throughout the recovery period.

Security Cameras: Many schools have surveillance cameras operating in the halls, cafeteria, and other common areas. Ask the principal to preserve all camera footage for the day of your child’s injuries.

Witness Statements: 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 helpful, although employees may be reluctant to say anything against the school.

Ask potential witnesses to write down what they saw and heard, and 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 their injuries.

Damages: 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.

Request copies of your child’s treatment records and bills resulting from the injury at school. Include records and bills for:

  • Emergency services
  • Medical treatment
  • Dental care
  • Mental health services

Gather receipts for any out-of-pocket expenses related to the accident, including medications, crutches, bandages, and parking fees.

Older children may have lost wages from an after-school job. If you had to take off work to transport your child for medical treatment, or while caring for your child at home, you should also include proof of your lost wages.

Keep a diary of your child’s treatment and recovery to record their pain levels, bad dreams, missed social events, fears, and behavioral changes. The diary can help support claims for pain and suffering, as well as punitive damages for particularly egregious negligence by the school.

Filing a School Injury Claim or Lawsuit

How and when you go about seeking compensation for your child’s damages will depend on your school district, and whether your child was injured in a public or private school.

State Governments Run Public Schools

Public school systems are part of the local government. Just like any other government agency, public schools are protected by a state-level version of sovereign immunity.

Sovereign immunity is a legal rule that prevents the government or its subdivisions, departments, and agencies from being sued without its consent.

Ask the school principal or an administrator for the name and address of the government agency that oversees your child’s school. Depending on the school, the head office may have the forms you need.

You may need to file a Notice of Intent to let the school know you intend to sue the school district. You may have to use a form provided by the school or write your own letter.

We’ve made it easier with our free Notification Letter Template.

Administrative Remedies are a fancy way of saying you may be required to bring your complaint to the school district for resolution before you’re allowed to file a lawsuit.

Move quickly; there are specific deadlines for filing injury claims against government entities, sometimes as little as 30 days. You must correctly fill out the right form and send it to the correct office by the deadline. Missing the filing deadline can result in outright denial of the claim.

Don’t risk forfeiting your child’s injury claim. Contact a personal injury attorney to discuss your child’s claim from the start.  

Private School Injury Claims

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.

Contact the school administrator or review the school handbook to find out how to initiate your child’s claim. In most cases, the school will help and cooperate in processing your claim.

An Attorney Will Protect Your Child

If your child’s injuries are minor, “soft tissue” injuries, such as minor cuts, bruises, scrapes or muscle sprains, you can probably negotiate a fair settlement directly with the insurance company without too much risk.

Settling claims on behalf of a minor child can be tricky. Don’t be fooled into an agreement that won’t be in the best interest of your child.

If you handle the claim yourself and make a mistake, you can jeopardize the entire claim. Even if your child’s rights haven’t been extinguished, the evidence may be long gone by the time the claim is re-started.

Settlements for Minor Children

Many states have strict rules about financial settlements for minor children. Some states require a judge to approve “infant” settlements. In legal terms, an infant is any child under the age of majority, usually 18 years old.

Child injury claims are complicated. If your child was injured in a school bus crash, there could be dozens of claims against the at-fault driver’s insurance company, for a limited amount of liability coverage. An attorney can make sure your child gets a fair share.

Severe injury claims often involve more than medical bills. Only an experienced attorney can help your child get the compensation they deserve for sexual abuse, permanent disability, disfigurement, and other high-dollar claims.

Don’t wait. There’s no obligation, and it costs nothing to find out what a skilled personal injury attorney can do for you and your child.

School Injury Claim Questions & Answers

Charles R. Gueli, Esq. is a personal injury attorney with over 20 years of legal experience. He’s admitted to the NY State Bar, and been named a Super Lawyer for the NY Metro area, an exclusive honor awarded to the top five percent of attorneys. Charles has worked extensively in the areas of auto accidents,... Read More >>