School should be a reliable place for your child to feel safe and welcome. And that’s most often the case for many children of all ages and grades, from pre-kindergarten daycare through college. But accidents, negligence, and sometimes criminal behavior can happen just about anywhere in this world—even on school campuses.
When you’ve placed your child’s care in the hands of another person or facility whose job it is to protect them from harm to the best of their abilities, what are you supposed to do when that duty of protection is breached? What are your legal options when the unthinkable happens, and your child suffers harm that could have and should have been prevented? The answer to that question depends on a variety of factors that all parents should familiarize themselves with.
The Difference Between Public and Private Schools
As a parent, you may assume that it shouldn’t matter who harms your child, or where they were located when that harm took place. And as a family-forward law firm, we agree with you. Unfortunately, our country’s laws feel otherwise.
Under the rule of “sovereign immunity,” any facilities funded, owned, and operated by the United States government in some form, whether local, state, or federal, are largely protected from personal injury lawsuits by civilians. In simpler terms, this generally means that if your child suffers a severe personal injury while on any kind of public school campus funded and operated by the government, it’s likely that you’re unable to sue that school for damages related to the injury.
If, however, your child is injured while attending a private school that has no ties to the government in any shape or form, the school is not protected under sovereign immunity. In these cases, filing a lawsuit against that private entity, while not easy, can be a more streamlined process than facing the same scenario with a public school. That’s not to say, however, that just because your child attends a public school that any and all injuries or harm they suffer while there can go completely ignored by the school and its owners or staff.
The Protections Your Child is Owed
Every single public school campus is expected to adhere to premises liability laws set forth by the state the school is located in. Similarly, every single public school campus is expected to employ staff members who have undergone the proper education, training, certifications, and background checks that legally allow them to not only be in the presence of minors, but to take responsibility for their care while attending their facility.
Premises liability law deals with the requirement that property owners and operators have a duty to ensure their property is safe and secure for patrons to the best of their abilities. When that duty of care is breached and a patron on their property is severely injured because of it, those owners open themselves up to the possibility of a lawsuit.
If your child’s school campus breaches their responsibility behind premises liability in some form, you may be able to sue. It all depends on the circumstances in which the injury happened, and how aware the owners and staff were of the issue beforehand. If someone associated with the school is found negligent of these laws, the school as a whole or even the district the school is located in may be held liable. Common scenarios of premises liability cases on school campuses include preventable slip-and-fall accidents, construction areas that aren’t properly labeled or operated, and old or malfunctioning areas of the campus or pieces of school-owned equipment.
It’s a similar situation when it comes to the behavior of the school staff members themselves. They may take special care to make sure their classrooms and other common areas are safe to navigate, but they are required to keep their behavior within certain parameters as well. Their actions may not be exempt from legal proceedings if they take part in other types of negligent behavior that is harmful to students.
For example, if a teacher takes physical disciplinary action against a child, or engages in a sexual relationship with one of their minor-aged students, it may be possible to file a lawsuit against them and the school. The same can also be possible if another student at the school is the one who caused the injury or harm to your child. Examples of these kinds of situations could be physical bullying taken much too far, or even dangerous hazing rituals carried out by college campus fraternity members that result in severe injury or harm. In these cases, the school might be held responsible if they knew of the inappropriate behavior and made no attempt to remedy or prevent it.
Your Options if Your Child is Injured at School
Your child’s school absolutely has legal protections they must adhere to in order to best exhibit care for your child, even with sovereign immunity in place. Otherwise, school campuses would just be free-for-all playgrounds of dangerous behavior. But even as such, the process of filing and winning a lawsuit in one of these circumstances can still be challenging.
If you believe your child has suffered hard due to some type of negligent behavior while they were attending their school, the first step is to make sure they get the medical attention they need to address their injuries. Work with your doctor and your health insurance provider to make sure they get the immediate attention they need, and then help them keep up with ongoing medications, checkups, and therapy as needed. These are not only important for your child’s recovery, but for evidence of their medical procedures and costs that could be critical to the case.
Next, seek out the help of an experienced personal injury attorney. Schedule consultations with several different firms to get an array of opinions on what kind of options you have, which will largely depend on if your child attends a public or private school, what state and district the school is located in, and of course, the nature of how the injury occurred. Depending on the combination of all those factors, even the most experienced and confident lawyers may feel they have no choice but to tell you that it will be nearly impossible to open a claim and a successful lawsuit against the school district for the harm caused. And that’s most often because they understand the uphill battle posed by the rules of sovereign immunity.
However, if a personal injury attorney believes true negligence took place, and also believes they will be able to gather the evidence needed in order to prove that in a settlement agreement or in court of law, they may be willing to work with you on those next steps on behalf of your child. It may not be the easiest option to take, but your child is worth fighting for. If the school was negligent in their required duty of protection and care, then they must be held responsible.