Gym Class Accidents and Injuries: Proving School Liability

Can you get compensation from a negligent school when your child is injured in gym class? Here’s how to prove the school’s liability for injuries.

More than 40,000 children each year are injured badly enough in gym class to end up in the emergency room. ¹

While most gym class injuries are soft tissue, such as sprains, minor cuts and bruising, a substantial number of more serious injuries happen, including head trauma, broken bones, eye injuries, and more.

Boys are more likely to suffer head injuries ranging from deep cuts to fractured skulls after colliding with another person or structure.

Girls tend to have more injuries to their legs, knees, ankles, and feet during individual activities like running and gymnastics.

Active children are bound to get hurt from time-to-time, at home or school. While most injuries are purely accidental, sometimes kids are seriously hurt due to negligence. If the school is responsible for your child’s injuries, you may be entitled to pursue compensation for your child’s damages.

School Gym Safety Obligations

Children are more often injured on a school’s playground and in gym class than anywhere else on the premises.² Parents expect schools to be safe for their children, and for gym teachers to protect students from undue bodily harm. Unfortunately, sometimes a child is hurt through the negligence of a school employee.

Of course, kids can get hurt in many ways at school, including slip and falls on wet floors, pinched hands and fingers in doors, fights, or attacks by a bully in the locker room.

All public and private schools have a legal duty of care (obligation) to protect their students from undue harm. The school’s duty begins the minute the student steps on the school bus in the morning and throughout the school day, including gym class.

A school’s duty of care is not absolute. Courts have traditionally ruled that a school fulfills its duty of care when it does everything reasonably possible to protect its students. The duty of care extends to school staff, including coaches and teachers.

In a school gym class injury, the issue becomes whether or not the school, through its physical education instructor, did everything within reason to avoid a dangerous condition.

When a school fails to do everything within reason to protect its students, and that failure results in a student’s injury, the school has breached (violated) its duty of care. That violation is referred to as negligence.

When negligence occurs, the school becomes responsible for the student’s injuries and resulting damages.

An injured child’s damages include:

  • Medical and therapy bills
  • Out-of-pocket expenses (medications, crutches, slings, etc.)
  • Lost wages (parent and child, if applicable)
  • Child’s pain and suffering

School injuries don’t just happen in gym class. Learn more about Liability for School Accidents here.

Creating a Safe Physical Education Environment

Physical education teachers have an obligation to look out for the health and safety of their students. Prudent gym teachers take the time to:

  • Plan gym activities and allocate appropriate space
  • Inspect all areas for hazards
  • Select and inspect equipment that is appropriate for each activity
  • Assess the grounds and class areas before each activity
  • Monitor indoor and outdoor gym areas for safety and security

Understanding School Negligence

The school is only liable for injuries caused by negligence. The school won’t have to pay when your child is injured by an accident that wasn’t the school’s fault.

The school may be negligent in circumstances where:

  1. The gym teacher had a duty of care to protect your child from undue harm.
  2. The teacher violated their duty of care.
  3. The violation was the direct cause of your child’s injuries.
  4. The teacher knew, or should have known of the danger to your child.

Negligence depends on the circumstances leading to the injury. If a child gets hurt from a fall,  it might be accidental, or it can be the result of negligence. For example:

  • A student slipping and falling on spilled water in the hallway can be a case of negligence if the school knew about the spill and didn’t put out wet floor signs or mop up the spill.
  • A student slipping and falling on perspiration on the floor during a gym volleyball class isn’t necessarily a sign of the school’s negligence, it’s just an accident.

Negligence Makes the School Liable

Accidental gym class injuries can’t be blamed on the school, even in the face of serious injuries. On the other hand, injuries arising out of negligence make the school entirely liable.

Example: Eye Injury During Basketball

Simon was guarding another player named Mike during a basketball game. Simon had his arms up in the correct defensive posture. A player on the other team threw the basketball to Mike, but Simon’s arms blocked the pass.

Unfortunately, when the ball hit Simon’s right hand, it knocked one of Simon’s fingers into Mike’s eye, causing an injury.

Although a serious eye injury occurred, the school isn’t liable. The injury was wholly accidental and occurred during normal play.

Example: Spinal Injury from Gym Activity  

As part of a class exercise, the gym teacher had students jump over stacked-up mats. During the exercise, several of the mats dislodged, making the jump awkward and dangerous.

The gym teacher took no action to stop the exercise and re-stack the mats. While attempting to jump over the dislodged mats, Susie caught her foot on the edge of one; she fell and fractured her vertebrae.

Later they discovered the school received prior complaints from parents whose children fell over the same dislodged mats during gym class.

In this case, the student’s injury was not accidental. The gym teacher knew or should have known about the danger caused by the dislodged mats and failed to eliminate the dangerous condition. The school is therefore liable for Susie’s damages.

As you can see by these examples, whether gym class injuries are an accident or caused by school negligence can be difficult to determine.

If you believe negligence caused your child’s injury, you’ll need evidence to support your claim.

Gathering Evidence for Your Claim

To succeed in your child’s injury claim against the school, you must have evidence of negligence to show the injury wasn’t accidental, but instead was the school’s fault.

The burden is on you to prove your child was injured because the gym instructor did something wrong or failed to do what a reasonable teacher would do.

Prompt medical attention: If your child isn’t transported directly to the hospital from school, the child must be medically evaluated as soon as possible after an injury. If your primary medical provider isn’t available, take your child to the emergency room or an urgent care center.

You want to be sure your child gets the treatment they need right away. Not only that, if you allow time to pass, there’s a chance the school may say the injury happened somewhere else and not during gym class.

Photographs and videos: Most parents won’t be around when their child gets hurt in gym class. You won’t be able to photograph a gym teacher’s negligent supervision, physical bullying from other students, or other intangible causes.

However, these days many children carry smartphones. Older children are particularly quick to whip out their phone and start taking pictures when incidents occur. Your child’s classmates may have filmed the incident.

If you’re not able to locate pictures taken as the injury occurred, you’ll have to rely on other forms of evidence.

For circumstances such as a raised tile on the gym floor, an exercise machine in disrepair, or any other dangerous condition, go ahead and do whatever you can to visit the location and take pictures. Take as many photos as possible to identify the dangerous condition and exclude other possible causes.

School surveillance footage: In our lawsuit-happy society, surveillance cameras have become the norm almost everywhere you go. Schools use surveillance cameras primarily for security, but they can also identify activities taking place on school property. See if a surveillance camera was in the gym or close to the playing field where your child was hurt.

The school isn’t required to share the footage with you. However, if a camera was in the area, the school administrator will want to see if it caught the injury in progress.

Let the school know you expect them to preserve all footage taken the day of your child’s injury. They won’t voluntarily give it to you, but an attorney can use legal means to obtain copies.

School records: Proof of prior knowledge of a dangerous condition can be devastating for the school. It shows the school was fully aware of the danger and did nothing to eliminate or repair it. That, in and of itself, is startling evidence of negligent behavior.

Also, the gym teacher’s personnel records might reveal previous disciplinary action, prior notification, or termination of employment regarding negligent behavior, especially as it relates to student safety.

The school will likely not disclose internal records, surveillance films, or any personnel or student records without a subpoena from your child’s attorney. Contact a personal injury attorney to be sure the school preserves critical evidence.

Witness statements: Go to other parents. Ask for permission to get witness statements from other children who are familiar with what happened. Other students make great witnesses because they have no financial interest in the outcome of the claim.

Also, look for parents who may have made previous complaints to the school about the danger.

A dangerous condition doesn’t have to be something you can physically touch, like a broken machine. It can be previous complaints about the way a teacher forced students to continue, even after someone was hurt; or reports of a bully who injured other students. Ask the witnesses to write down in detail their version of the facts.

Damages: Without proof of your child’s damages, you don’t have a legitimate injury claim. You must show the dangerous condition was the direct and proximate (legally acceptable) cause of your child’s injury. Proof of damages include:

  • Copies of your child’s medical records and bills. Gather records from emergency services, and all other related medical treatment and mental health services, as applicable. The medical records should indicate how, when, and where the injuries occurred.
  • Receipts for out-of-pocket expenses like crutches, bandages, and medications.
  • Lost wages for you and your child.
  • Transportation expenses for medical appointments, like vehicle mileage and receipts for parking fees.

Special Handling for Public School Claims

Private school injury claims can probably be handled directly with the school’s insurance company. Ask the principal or school administrator for their insurance information. Bear in mind that settling insurance claims for underage children can be tricky.

Public school systems are part of the local government, and just like any other state agency, are protected by that state’s 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.

Public school systems often require parents to jump through several hoops before filing a lawsuit. When the school says you must “exhaust all administrative remedies” they are saying you have to start by bringing your complaint to the school district for resolution before you’re allowed to file a lawsuit.

What they may not tell you is there are specific deadlines for filing injury claims against government agencies like schools, sometimes as little as 30 days. Missing the filing deadline can extinguish your claim.

Don’t rely on the school’s advice for handling your claim. Contact a personal injury attorney to protect your child’s claim from the beginning.

Compensation for Gym Class Injuries

If your child’s injuries are the soft tissue type, like bumps and bruises or mild muscle sprains, you can think about handling the claim yourself. Just make sure you don’t agree to settle until your child has finished treatment, and the adjuster has evidence of all the damages.

If your child’s injuries are more serious, you need an experienced attorney. There’s just too much at stake when it comes to high-dollar injury claims.

How an Attorney Can Help

Only an experienced attorney can ensure your child gets appropriate compensation for severe injuries like brain trauma, spinal cord injuries, or other disfiguring or disabling injuries.

An attorney can use legal tactics and strategies to handle cases involving criminal abuse or assault, defective sports equipment, wrongful death cases, and other complex claims. You won’t have the legal experience to effectively pursue these types of cases.

Many states have strict legal guidelines for handling compensation awarded to an underage child. Your attorney will make sure the school covers the cost of setting up financial trusts or annuities.

Don’t risk your child’s future. There’s no obligation, and no cost to find out what a skilled personal injury attorney can do for you and your child.

Gym Class Injury 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 >>