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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Visitor Questions on Accidents at School
Compensation for cheerleader injury? This accident happened at school. The personal cost was approximately $2100 (those are the only damages we are seeking + legal fees if necessary). Medical treatments to repair the arm involve surgery, a night in hospital, as well as many follow-up appointments. This happened on December 14, 2016. Our daughter, a cheerleader, was being held... Read More >>
If you get hurt on school grounds after hours, is the school liable? After school our teachers encourage us not to ride any modes of transportation. They put teachers outside to stop student from riding them. I was curious about the law behind this and if the school was liable for injuries that happen on their property during after school hours, and after the school is in possession... Read More >>
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Daughter injured due to poor supervision at after school program… My daughter fell down the stairs off a stage during latchkey (school age child care). My daughter is 4 years old and there was only one monitor in the gym at the time, watching about 16 kids. No child unless designated is supposed to be on the stage (this usually goes to the older kids).... Read More >>
Whose insurance covers medical bills? My daughter was injured in school during a required class activity. The school called an ambulance and my daughter was transported to the hospital. I was told the school’s insurance would cover the ambulance and my insurance had to cover the balance of her medical care, including the ER visit, doctor’s visits and the physical... Read More >>
Son run over by classmate while working on class project… In May 2016 my 16 yr old son was participating in an off-campus school project. This project was assigned and approved by the teacher. Note: This was not the regular class (science) teacher that approved this project. It was the school’s athletic director who was subbing in the class. The kids showed him the assignment... Read More >>
School didn’t send my son for treatment for broken wrist? On Wednesday on son was playing tether ball at school during recess. He hit his wrist on the pole when he tried hitting the ball. The pole was not padded. An office person ran him through some basic tests to determine if he had a broken bone. She came to the conclusion that it was... Read More >>
My son was injured due to negligent supervision by YMCA staff… My son is 4 years old. He tripped and fell when he was running in the school’s after school program which is managed by the staff from YMCA. His bones in the left front arm were broken. Today a student from the school told my wife: “It is the fourth time the same accident happened.... Read More >>
Unsupervised student fractured my son’s tibia… My son’s leg was broken on school grounds by an older student. Here’s what happened… I picked up my son (in kindergarten) and proceeded to wait in an area designated for parents to wait until the older students were released. While we were waiting, a fourth grade student who had apparently been released to go... Read More >>
Boy injured at Field Day, but no school nurse on duty? My son ran into a soccer goal post at school on field day and cut himself. There was no nurse at school that day so the office called me and told me to come pick him up and take him to the ER because he probably needed stitches. Obviously, the school was not negligent in... Read More >>
Son had broken humerus bone just below ball of shoulder… I got a call from the school nurse at 3:45pm saying my son, a 2nd grader, had fallen while dancing in music class and hurt his arm. She said he couldn’t hold his right arm out without severe pain. She had him lay and sit in her office with ice on it and a gauze... Read More >>
My son fell and fractured his wrist climbing on a chair in class… I am a concerned parent and would like an answer regarding my son’s incident. My 10 yr old son drew his teacher a picture and was asked to hang up his picture. He got up on a chair with teacher “supervision” allowing him to climb on the chair. He fell off the chair and landed... Read More >>
Son injured due to policy of having students stand on school bus… My son told me students must stand on buses due to overcrowding. He was standing on the bus when the elderly bus driver stopped suddenly, causing my child to be tossed toward the windshield, breaking his glasses, and causing cuts under his eye and ear. The driver never called school to report the incident. He... Read More >>
My child has broken bones twice at school and I wasn’t even called? Last year my daughter, 5 years old in kindergarten, was lifting weights for gym class (which I thought was a little ridiculous when I found out), when she smashed her finger between two weights. She went to the nurse’s office and was given ice and sent back to class. I saw her at her lunchtime... Read More >>
Failure to get medical attention for my daughter’s broken wrists? My 8yr old daughter was on the swing at school when she fell and broke both wrists. The nurse called me and told me what happened, that she fell but said that she was okay and was given ice to put on them. I asked her advice, if I should take her to the hospital,... Read More >>
Teacher made my autistic, asthmatic son run laps as punishment… My son was born with heart and lung problems. He has been on home school since kindergarten. We tried letting him go to public school this year. He is 8 years old. He had several notes from the doctor stating he needed rest often. He has severe asthma and had an emergency inhaler at school.... Read More >>
Accommodations not made for injured student’s classes? My son was injured and tore his meniscus while playing in a football game. After surgery, he had to take a week off before returning back to school. Upon returning, the school was advised by the orthopedic surgeon and parents that he is restricted from using stairs for 4-5 weeks. The school has no elevator.... Read More >>
My child got hurt in school but never filed a claim… My child got hurt while playing during recess time in a NYC public school. He was taken to the ER and got 12 stitches on his eyelid. When the bill came I asked the school Dean who handled the reporting of the incident what I needed to do to have the school insurance pay for... Read More >>
Liability for stage three concussion and broken wrist during recess? My son was at school and was out for recess when he slipped off the monkey bars, fractured his wrist, and obtained a stage three concussion. My son was moved with a head injury, and sat in the nurse’s office in a wheelchair for one hour before receiving medical attention. A little over two years... Read More >>
Avascular Necrosis and Total Hip Collapse… My daughter had an accident at sports practice. They thought she might have a concussion. Another student called me and told me to come to the school because something real bad happened. When I arrived, they had decided not to call an ambulance since another parent (not at the school) informed them she was fine.... Read More >>
Post Concussion Syndrome from Soccer Injury at School… My child was hit above the nose with a soccer ball on a playground at recess. He was knocked out and had a very bad nose bleed. He was taken to the nurse. We were never notified of any of this. We had two phone calls from teachers that day. His 3rd grade teacher did... Read More >>
Child Gets Staples for Cut on Skull… My four year old son was injured at school by another child his age. My son was hit in the head with a plastic balancing disc and had to receive 3 staples on the left side of his skull. My son is currently covered by our health insurance which covers the medical costs, but I... Read More >>
Eye Injury at School… My son was injured in school by another student. The other student made a sling shot and shot a pencil into my son’s eye. My son was in his seat at the time, not playing or doing anything with the child. The District Attorney’s office does not want to press criminal charges on the child... Read More >>
Kindergartener Injured After Teacher Refused to Tie Her Shoelaces… My niece asked her teacher to tie her shoe on the way to lunch. She is in kindergarten and doesn’t know how to tie her own shoes yet. The teacher refused saying my niece needed to tie them herself. As my niece was throwing away her tray to go to recess, she tripped on her... Read More >>
Head Injury at School Needs Stitches… My 6 year old son was in school when he hit his head on a door and needed stitches. I was told by the nurse that he had been playing in the bathroom and he slipped on some water and fell, but he told me that he was pushed by two other boys. I’d like... Read More >>
Child Slipped Off School Bus Stairs… My child slipped off the school bus stairs and was injured. It was a rainy day and she slipped due to the water on the steps. After she fell she could not get up. She said after she fell she noticed there was a puddle of water on the stair. The bus driver called the... Read More >>
Hit in the face with a door… I was walking to class and a teacher opened a door into the hallway and struck me in the face. There is this yellow square in front of the door and I walked into it. Is the teacher responsible for my injuries? Is there anything I can do? Read More >>
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Emotional Distress from Almost Getting Hit by a Car… As I walked across the zebra crossing in a school car park one of the teachers wasn’t paying attention while driving and just managed to stop a centimeter from hitting me. Her reason for looking backwards as she drove forwards was because someone revved their engine behind her and she was worried about her BMW!... Read More >>