Parents know how active and energetic children can be, and that tendency doesn’t necessarily change just because children are at school, especially with playtime and physical education programs. On the playground during recess they play kick ball and dodge ball, or challenge each other to contests on the monkey bars. As children grow older their sporting activities become both more organized and more dangerous -- football, soccer, basketball, baseball. Injuries to children are often unavoidable, but when they happen at school, can the school district be liable?
If your child is injured while at school or while involved in a school activity, determining who might be responsible for that injury is often a difficult question. Even if the school or a school employee didn’t directly cause your child’s injury, the school district might still be legally responsible. (Get the basics on Proving Fault in Injury Cases.)
For example, perhaps another student threw a ball at your child on the playground. Your first inclination might be to assume that the other student, and not the school district, is legally responsible for your child’s injury. But that is not always the case. Perhaps a teacher failed to ensure that the ball was properly locked in the closet. Maybe the offending student had a propensity for aggressive behavior toward other students, and the school district failed to properly supervise this behavior.
Similarly, perhaps your child was injured in a school bus accident caused by the driver of another car. Even though you might bring a claim against the other driver for causing the accident, the school district might also be negligent and might share some level of legal responsibility for your child’s injuries.
If you believe the school district might be responsible for your child’s injury, one of the remedies that may be available to you is to bring a civil suit in court against the school district. The lawsuit will seek personal injury damages (meaning compensation) for all losses related to your child’s injuries. However, suing a school district is usually permitted only under very limited circumstances.
School districts, like the federal government and all branches and agencies at the state, county, and municipal level of government, are entities known as “political subdivisions.” In all states, political subdivisions enjoy what is called “sovereign immunity.”
Generally speaking, this means that in most situations the government entity and its employees are immune from lawsuits except under very specific circumstances. The good news is that most states allow at least some types of lawsuits against school districts for injuries to students. The bad news is that there are often very specific and tedious procedures you are required to follow before you can even file the lawsuit. Failing to follow these procedures can result in an immediate dismissal of your lawsuit, or your lawsuit might even be barred altogether.
The laws governing lawsuits against school districts vary from state to state. But typically, even before a lawsuit can be filed against a school district, most states require that you file a formal claim with the school district.
The claim usually must be in writing and filed with the clerk or other specified official of the school district. The claim will describe the nature of the incident and injuries to the student, so that the school district can properly investigate the incident.
While the time limits for getting the claim filed are different in each state, you usually have a lot less time to file the claim than you would to file a normal lawsuit. In many states, you have only 60 to 90 days after the injury to get the claim filed with the school district or other administrative arm of the government.
If the claim is not filed in time, most states completely prohibit you from later filing any type of lawsuit in court against the school district.
Once the claim is filed, most states typically do not allow you to file your lawsuit until either (1) the school district has denied the claim, or (2) a certain amount of time has passed without any action by the school district (typically three to six months).
Learn more about Suing the Government for Negligence.