If you or a loved one has suffered harm due to the negligence of a school, you may be able to obtain compensation for your economic and noneconomic losses. At The Maurer Law Firm, PLLC, we believe in holding school districts responsible for negligent conduct that causes serious injury.
Whether a child (or the parents of a child) injured on school grounds can sue the school for damages depends on several factors including the most important question of whether the legal concept of "sovereign immunity" might prevent a lawsuit altogether.
Does Sovereign Immunity Prevent a Lawsuit Against the School?
Most government agencies, including states and the federal government, have immunity from lawsuits, which means that they cannot be sued. This is called "sovereign immunity" when it is applied to the federal and state governments, and "governmental immunity" when it is applied to city, county and other smaller governments – although "sovereign immunity" is often used as a blanket term.
Typically, a public school district will be considered an agency of the local municipal government. Although they are immune, most government agencies waive their immunity and allow themselves to be sued under specific conditions. However, there may be narrow constraints.
For example, the negligence must have been "gross" (i.e. very negligent) or a municipality must have purchased insurance to cover the type of lawsuit. Aside from these broader guidelines of gross negligence and insurance, the exact circumstances under which a plaintiff can sue for injuries on school grounds can vary greatly from state to state. The state government sets the rules for when smaller agencies, such as school districts, within the state can be sued -- so the rules, fortunately, do not vary within a state.
Suing a School Will Probably Require Extra Steps and Shorter Deadlines
Aside from sovereign immunity creating narrow circumstances for suing a school or preventing a lawsuit entirely, there are also extra steps and shorter deadlines when a school or other government agency is a defendant in a lawsuit.
Most states have a very short statute of limitations for when a plaintiff can sue for a personal injury caused by a government agency, typically from six months to two years. Most states also require the plaintiff to notify the responsible agency of the intention to sue before the case can begin. Depending on the state, this means that a plaintiff must identify and notify the responsible agency the he or she is going to sue and the details of the suit within six months of the accident, for example.
Any later, and no lawsuit will be allowed. In New York, a Notice of Claim must normally be served within 90 days of the child's injury and a lawsuit must be filed within 1 year and 90 days of the child's injury.
Premises Liability and Negligence
Premises liability cases are lawsuits based on injuries caused by a defect or other hazard on the school grounds – for example slipping on a puddle in a bathroom. Sovereign immunity rules may allow a lawsuit for premises liability, but typically only if the hazard was the result of very negligent actions or if the school district carries applicable insurance. Some states may have sovereign immunity rules that prevent premises liability cases against schools entirely.
Perhaps the most frequent negligence claim against a school is negligent supervision, i.e. if the person in charge had done their job properly, the injury would not have happened. Negligence claims are typically not treated differently than premises liability claims under sovereign immunity rules. In other words, unless there is insurance or someone was very negligent in failing to supervise properly, or committed some other very negligent act, suing for damages will probably not be an option.
Assumption of Risk
A common defense to a personal injury claim based upon negligent supervision is that the child assumed the risk of injury as a natural part of the activity. In New York, the courts of said that in assessing whether a defendant has violated a duty of care in the context of an injury sustained during a sport or game, the court must determine whether the defendant created a unique condition "over and above the usual dangers that are inherent in the sport'" (Morgan v State of New York, 90 NY2d at 485, quoting Owen v R.J.S. Safety Equip., 79 NY2d 967, 970).
For a FREE consultation with experienced Fishkill school accident attorney Ira M. Maurer, please contact The Maurer Law Firm by calling us at 845-896-5295.