There are a substantial number of devastating injuries that occur on or around school property each year, leading to physical and emotional damage to children and their families. If you child was injured during school, you may be considering a lawsuit. However, liability claims against schools and their faculty can be incredibly complicated, and will depend on the specific facts and circumstances of the injury. The Philadelphia school injury attorneys at the Reiff Law Firm explains who can be held liable for school-related injuries in Pennsylvania.
Can You Sue the School if Your Child Gets Hurt on Their Property in Pennsylvania?
If your child was injured while at school, your first thought may be that the school should be held liable for his or her injuries. However, public school districts in Pennsylvania are “political subdivisions”, and are protected by what it called, “sovereign immunity”. Under Political Subdivision Torts Claim Act § 8541, public schools are generally not held liable and are immune to damages resulting from an injury unless under special circumstances. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of exceptions to general governmental immunity that would allow you to file a liability claim if your child was injured at public school. However, it is important to note that if and when they are sued, their maximum liability for harm is capped at $500,000.
If your child attends a private school, there are no specific rules regarding liability claims. If your child was injured and you believe the school or one of its employees is responsible, you can file a personal injury lawsuit. The government immunity laws are only applicable to private schools that receive federal funding.
Exceptions to sovereign immunity
Despite the fact that public schools have general immunity, there is an extensive list of exceptions that may allow you to file a liability claim. Right off the bat, the injury must meet the following criteria: the damages must be recoverable under common law and the injury would have to be a direct result of the negligence of the school or an employee.
Schools have a duty to provide safe environments for children while they are away from their families. They are required to provide safe food, shelter, transportation, and medication. If the school or employee breaches on their duty of care, and that breach results in an injury, then you might have a negligence case. However, in order for you to have a case, the injury has to stem from one of the following exceptions outlined in § 8541 of the Political Subdivision Torts Claim Act:
1. Vehicle liability: The first exception is among the most common exception to Sovereign immunity, and states that a student may make a claim for compensation if they were injured due to the negligent operation of a motor vehicle in the possession or control of the school district, such as a school bus.
2. Care, custody or control of personal property: Damages can be recoverable if injury resulted from the improper care, custody or control of personal property of the school district.
3. Real Property: Damages can be recoverable if injury resulted from the improper care, custody or control of real property of the school district. In order to have a successful claim, you must prove that the school knew about the defective and dangerous Real Estate, yet did nothing to fix it before an injury occurred. This exception does not apply to fixtures, like chairs or tables, that are not a part of the real estate itself.
4. Trees, traffic controls, and street lighting: Another exception is if there exists a dangerous condition of trees, traffic signs or other traffic controls or street lighting systems under the care, custody or control of the school district.
5. Utility Service Facilities: You may also be able to recover compensation if there existed a dangerous condition of the facilities of steam, sewer, water, gas or electric systems owned by the school district. However, you bear the burden of proving that the condition created a reasonably foreseeable risk of the type of injury that was incurred, and that the district was aware of the condition at a sufficient time before the event to have protected against it, and failed to do so.
6. Streets: You may also recover compensation if a dangerous situation of the streets owned by the district caused the injury, yet you will need to prove the condition established a foreseeable risk and was known about a sufficient amount of time before the incident.
7. Sidewalks: If a dangerous condition of sidewalks within the rights-of-way of streets owned by the school district was present with the stipulation of proving a foreseeable risk and prior knowledge of condition with a sufficient amount of time before the incident.
8. Care, custody or control of animals: You may also recover compensation if there was an improper care, custody or control of animals owned by the school district.
9. Sexual Abuse: The final exception is if your child suffered sexual abuse and the injuries were caused by the actions or omissions of the school.
Additionally, you may be able to file a civil rights violation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. This federal statute allows you to sue the government for civil rights violations, and since public schools are government entities, you may file a claim for discrimination against a student or police brutality.
Negligence Case Example
A 2019 decision, Brewington v. City of Pennsylvania, shows promise for students who suffered injuries due to unsafe school property. In 2012, a 9-year old student tripped during gym class and hit his head against an unpadded concrete wall, sustaining a concussion and long-lasting brain damage. He missed weeks of school recovering, and he suffered from headaches and memory problems for years following the incident. His mother sued the school for negligence, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded that failure to pad the gym wall fell under the exception of real property to sovereign immunity.
Can the Teacher or Administrator be Held Liable?
There may be cases where the teacher is determined to be responsible for the injuries of a student. The term, in loco parentis, is a legal principle applying to teachers and administrators. The term refers to the duty that teachers and administrators have to act “in place of the parent” by ensuring safety and providing supervision. If a child sustains an injury under the care and supervision of a teacher or administrator, there may be a case for negligence. There are four legal conditions that must be met to establish there was negligence—duty, a breach of duty, causation, and damages.
The term in loco parentis already represents the duty that teachers and administrators have to ensure the safety of students. However, the extent of the duty may depend on the specifics of the accident, but generally refers to the level of care that an ordinary prudent teacher or administrator would have provided in a similar situation. The second step in establishing negligence of a teacher or administrator would be proving that they violated their duty somehow, by their actions or lack of action/supervision. Next, you must establish that the breach of duty of care directly caused the child’s injuries. Finally, there must be real damage from the injury in order for a negligence claim to be successful.
Establishing that a teacher or an administrator is responsible for a child’s injury is incredibly complicated because unanticipated and unavoidable accidents happen all the time. Thus, determining responsibility will depend on if the accident was foreseeable—whether or not the administrator or teacher knew about a dangerous condition—and whether they acted with reasonable care and proper supervision.
Intentional Acts of Harm against your Child
There are also cases where a child is injured due to the intentional acts of other students, teachers, or administrators. This falls under the legal category of intentional torts, and most commonly includes bullying that results in physical harm to a student. If it is a case of bullying, the parents of the offending student may be held liable for the injury. Additionally, the school may also be held liable if they had reason to believe the bullying might occur, or for failure to stop the harassment—which would constitute a negligent act.
There could also be cases in which an adult employee injures a child, such as if a teacher or administrator physically harmed or sexually abused a child. If this is the case, you may be able to sue the person directly, and school district could also be held liable for failing to conduct a proper background check, or to offer appropriate training or supervision.
Filing a Claim Against the School District
Personal injury lawsuits against a government entity are complicated. If you do not file a “notice of claim” with the school district within six months of the injury, your case will likely be dismissed if you attempt to file a lawsuit later on. The notice will describe the nature of the school accident claim, including the negligence of the school or its employees, and include a dollar amount of compensation you are seeking. The school district will then investigate the claim. If they deny the claim, or have not responded to the claim within three to six months, you can proceed with a lawsuit.
Call our Personal Injury Lawyers Today
You could be entitled to compensation if your child was injured at school. Liability claims against schools or employees are complicated because public schools are government entities. Contact our law office today at (215) 709-6940 to schedule a free consultation. Our veteran personal injury attorneys have experience handling a variety of school injury cases and will work tirelessly to ensure you receive compensation for your child’s injuries.