My Child Was Injured at School -- Who is Liable?
Legal responsibility will depend on how -- and where -- the injury happened.
According to the North Carolina Department of Insurance, as well as studies completed by other states, more than 14 million child injuries occur each year throughout the country. Of these injuries, more than a quarter occur in or around school property. This statistic is not surprising, given that during the school year, children spend a far greater percentage of their waking hours in school or at school-related activities than anywhere else.
If your child has been injured while either at school or during a school-related activity, it is natural as a parent to want to know who might be responsible in the eyes of the law. The possible answers to that question are varied and depend on the particular facts and circumstances of each situation.
Was the Act Intentional or Negligent?
This is the first question that must be answered in determining who is ultimately responsible for the injury.
Intentional torts might include an instance of bullying, where a child physically harms another student. However, it can also take the form of harm inflicted by an adult, such as where an adult employee of a school abuses a student.
In the instance of bullying, the parents of the offending student may be liable for the injury depending on the circumstances of the harassment. The school may also be liable for failing to stop the harassment if it had reason to know the bullying might take place.
Similarly, if an adult employee is the offender, the school district might be liable for failing to conduct a proper background check, or failing to offer appropriate training or supervision.
Many of these same issues overlap with the area of negligence. Perhaps the injury to your child was not the result of an intentional act, but rather the result of an “accident.” If so, even accidents are often caused by some failure on the part of the school or other entity.
What Types of Acts Constitute Negligence by a School?
While children are at school, the school provides for almost all of the child's needs in much the same way as parents do. Schools are obligated to provide shelter, food, transportation, and a generally safe environment. This also means that the opportunities to come up short in providing these services are numerous.
Generally speaking, if a school fails to follow accepted standards of care in providing those services to a child, and the student is injured because of that failure, then the school is said to be negligent. (Learn more about Negligence and the Duty of Care.)
Let's look at a few examples of how these injuries can occur, and where legal liability might lie.
A school bus accident could involve:
- negligence of the bus driver/school district employee
- improper training of the driver by the school district
- a poorly designed bus or malfunctioning vehicle equipment, or
- negligence of the other driver involved in the collision.
A playground injury could stem from:
- lack of adequate supervision by a teacher, or
- defective playground equipment, resulting from improper maintenance by the school or a dangerous design by the manufacturer.
A food poisoning incident could arise from:
- improper food preparation or storage by school personnel, or
- tainted food provided by an outside vendor or manufacturer.
A slip and fall on school premises could be caused by:
- a loose handrail that was improperly maintained by the school, or improperly installed by the construction company, or
- a fall on ice or snow that resulted from the school’s failure to clear sidewalks, or a similar failure by an outside vendor such as a local landscape company.
Exposure to asbestos:
- could occur in older structures due to the school district’s failure to remove the substances or to close down the structure altogether.
Injuries from natural or man-made disasters could occur due to:
- inadequate emergency preparedness and lack of planning, and
- failure to properly carry out evacuation or shelter in place.
Injuries during sports and playtime could be caused by:
- inadequate supervision by school personnel, or
- defective equipment provided by an outside vendor or manufacturer.
Is the School Public or Private?
If your child’s school is public, it is considered a governmental entity under state law. Because of that, there are very strict procedures that you must follow if you want to bring an injury claim or a lawsuit over the incident. Those rules are usually laid down by the state legislature. (Learn more: Can a School District Be Sued for Injuries to Students?)
If your child was injured at a private school, the organization against which you would be bringing an injury claim could be a not-for-profit organization, perhaps even a local diocese or synagogue. There aren't usually any special procedural rules for bringing a claim against this kind of organization. If you believe that a private school or one of its employees is responsible for your child's injury, you can typically proceed by filing a personal injury lawsuit in your state's civil court system.