According to the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, more than 60,000 students are hurt each year all across the country during gym class activities. While the majority of gym class injuries are soft tissue, such as sprains, minor cuts and bruising, a substantial number of more serious hard injuries happen, including head trauma, broken bones, broken teeth, eye injuries, and more.
While most injuries are unavoidably accidental, there are a number of others that are entirely avoidable and occur only because the school or the physical education teacher was negligent.
A question parents often raise concerns the liability of the school for their child’s gym class injuries. Is the school liable, and if so, under what circumstances? In this section, we cover the topic of school liability for gym class injuries, including a review of applicable law and the evidence you’ll need to succeed in a personal injury claim against the school.
Duty of Care During School Activities
Parents have a right to believe schools will provide a safe haven for their children and protect them from undue harm and bodily injury. Usually, parents’ beliefs are well-founded. Yet accidents do occur, and when they do, they more likely happen in the school’s gym than anywhere else on the premises.
Gym activities range from simple stretching exercises to running, jumping, and playing sports like basketball, softball, volleyball, and more. The nature of gym class activities depends on the students’ ages and abilities. Younger preschool and elementary students are less likely to participate in contact sports, while coaches frequently herd high school students into intra-class teams ready to compete in a variety of sports activities.
All schools, whether public, private, secular, or religious, have a legal duty of care (obligation) to protect their students from undue harm and bodily injury. The duty begins the minute the student steps on the school bus in the morning and ends when the student steps off the school bus at night (or leaves the school by other means).
A school’s duty of care is not absolute. The courts traditionally rule a school fulfills its duty of care when it does everything reasonably possible to protect its students. When it comes to gym class, the issue becomes whether or not the school, through its physical education instructor, did everything possible to eliminate or repair dangerous conditions that may cause injury.
When a school fails to do everything reasonably possible to protect its students, and that failure results in a student’s injury, the courts have traditionally said the school breached (violated) its duty of care. The breach is essentially the court’s declaration of the school’s negligence. When negligence occurs, the school becomes liable not only for the student’s injuries but also for the students’ subsequent damages.
Damages include reimbursement for the injured students’ medical bills, out-of-pocket expenses for medications, crutches, slings, etc., and if the child was in high school and had a part-time job, for his or her lost wages. If a parent had to miss work to take the child to and from treatment, the parent’s lost wages are included as well. Damages also include the child’s pain and suffering and emotional distress.
Accident or Negligence?
Whether a student’s injury resulted from an accident or because of the school’s negligence determines the school’s liability. The nature of the gym class activity changes the nature of a school’s duty of care. If someone slips and falls, in one case it can be accidental, and in another it can be the result of negligence.
For example, a student slipping and falling on spilled water in the hallway during a change of classes may indicate the school’s negligence in not having mopped up the water. A student slipping and falling on water from perspiration on the floor during a gym volleyball class isn’t necessarily a sign of the school’s negligence, it’s an accident.
Why is the difference important?
Accidental gym class injuries relieve a school of liability, even in the face of serious injuries. On the other hand, injuries arising out of negligence make the school entirely liable.
Example: Basketball injury
Simon H. was guarding another player during an intramural basketball game. Simon had his arms up in the correct defensive posture. A player on the other team threw the basketball to the player Simon was guarding. Simon’s arms blocked the pass. Unfortunately, when the ball hit Simon’s right hand, one of Simon’s fingers poked the player’s eye, causing an eye injury.
Although a serious eye injury occurred, the school isn’t liable. The injury was wholly accidental and occurred during normal play.
Example: Dangerous exercise
As part of a class exercise, the P.E. teacher had students jump over piled-up mats. During the exercise, several of the mats dislodged, making the jump dangerous. The P.E. teacher took no action to stop the exercise and place the mats back in order. While attempting to jump over the dislodged mats, Susie caught her foot on the edge of one; she fell and fractured her vertebrae.
It was later discovered the school received prior complaints from parents whose children told them about falling over the same dislodged mats during gym class.
In this case, the student’s injury was not accidental. The school knew about the danger the dislodged mats posed and failed to eliminate the dangerous condition. The school is therefore liable for the injured student’s damages.
As you can see by these examples, determining whether it’s an accident or a negligent act lies entirely in the circumstances of the injury-causing event. If your child is hurt during a school gym class activity, and you believe negligence caused the injury, you’ll need evidence to support your claim.
Evidence: Proving negligence
Each personal injury case succeeds or fails based on the circumstances unique to the injury. As a result, evidence of negligence becomes vitally important. To succeed in your child’s injury claim against the school, you must have evidence to show the injury wasn’t accidental, but instead was a result of negligence.
Photographs and videos
Photographs and videos of dangerous conditions are easier to get in car accidents and other cases when there’s immediate access to what caused the injury. While photographs and videos are very strong evidence of negligence, they’re difficult to acquire in gym settings.
Nevertheless, if a raised tile on the gym floor, an exercise machine in disrepair, or any other dangerous condition caused your child’s injury, go ahead and do whatever you can to photographically document the cause. Take as many photos as possible in an effort to clearly identify the dangerous condition and exclude other possible causes.
Of course, you won’t be able to photograph a P.E. teacher’s negligent supervision, physical bullying from other students, or other intangible causes. In these situations, you’ll have to rely on other forms of evidence.
School surveillance footage
In our lawsuit-happy society, surveillance cameras have become omnipresent. 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.
Although the school isn’t initially under an obligation to share the footage with you, it’s likely if a camera existed at the time, the school administrator will want to see if it caught the injury in progress. Also, if it becomes necessary for you to retain a personal injury attorney, he can subpoena the footage for review.
Like school surveillance footage, the school is unlikely to hand over its records related to their knowing about dangerous conditions in a gym. 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 P.E. 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. Like surveillance footage, it’s unlikely the school will hand over incriminating evidence, but your attorney can subpoena those school records as well.
Witness statements can add to your arsenal of evidence of school negligence. Fortunately, there isn’t an age requirement for a person, whether student or parent, to give a statement. Don’t be concerned about notaries public or sworn affidavits. That only becomes an issue if someone were later to dispute the authenticity of a statement. That’s not likely to occur.
Go to other parents. It’s better to ask permission of a parent before you begin asking a child for a statement. Parental cooperation can go a long way to help your claim. Ask your child which other students were there the day of the injury and who knows what caused it. 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 tangible. It can be previous complaints about the way a P.E. 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. If true, tell them to make clear your child did nothing to contribute to the injury.
You may have all the evidence in the world, but 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.
You do this with your child’s medical records. If she went to the emergency room, get copies of her admitting chart and the doctor’s notes. You need the doctor’s written diagnosis and prognosis for your child’s recovery. The prognosis should reference the future treatment required.
You want the doctor’s report to clearly indicate she treated your child for the specific injury and describe the cause of the injury, whatever it was, to the exclusion of anything that happened afterwards. That’s why it’s so important to have your child treated as soon as possible after the incident. If you allow time to pass, there’s a chance the school may say the injury happened somewhere else and not during gym class.
Make copies of all medical bills, receipts for medications, and proof of lost wages (yours and your high school child’s, if any). Also make copies of medical building parking fee receipts, and you can even include receipts for gasoline you had to purchase to take your child to and from treatment. Organize your documents for future reference.
Private Insurance or Government Tort Claim?
If your child attends public school, you must go through a kind of tort claim process. Ask the school administrator for the appropriate tort claim injury form. Make sure you move quickly since there are strict time limits for tort claims against government entities. If your child attends a private school, ask the school’s administrator for the name of the school’s insurance company.
When you make contact, the insurance adjuster will need copies of medical treatment records, medical bills, and proof of other damages. The adjuster may ask to take your child’s recorded statement. Just remember, no matter how official the adjuster makes it sound, your child does not have to give a recorded statement to process the claim. Oftentimes, permitting a child to give a recorded statement is not a good idea.
Hiring an Attorney
If your child’s injuries are the soft tissue type, you can probably handle the claim yourself. Just make sure you don’t agree to settle until your child’s treatment is finished and the adjuster has copies of all the damages. If your child’s injuries are more serious, you need an experienced attorney. There’s just too much at stake.
Attorneys have extraordinary legal power to conduct very thorough investigations. In almost all hard injury claims, experienced personal injury attorneys can settle claims or win them at trial for substantially higher amounts than you could if you were to handle the claim yourself.
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