When can a parent sue a school?

Recently on our legal forum a user asked, “My child was on a school sponsored event at a local pumpkin patch and was riding on a hay ride. While on the ride my child fell off and broke their arm. The school never called me or notified me of the incident. Am I legally allowed to sue the school for negligence?”

Many parents are surprised to learn that suing a school after an incident at school, even if the school district or teachers at the school were negligent, is not always possible. In fact, the legal concept of "sovereign immunity," which protects and excludes governmental agencies, states and federal governments from many types of legal claims may only allow for a personal injury lawsuit to be filed under very specific conditions.

Steps to file a lawsuit against a school district may vary by state

Unfortunately, the rules for whether or not claimants can sue can vary by state, although the rules within each state should be similar for plaintiffs. If a lawsuit is allowed, however, the amount of time the plaintiff will have to file the claim may not be as long as a typical personal injury claim and there may be additional requirements to initiate the claim. For example, in some cases the injured plaintiffs may be required to contact the agency responsible for the injury prior to initiating the claim and provide details regarding the suit.

Details about your child’s injury

Now, you mentioned that your child was injured while on a school-sponsored field trip. Most legal experts will tell you that many personal injury claims against a school district for injury, assuming the school district was not grossly negligent, are fruitless.

In fact, the concept of blanket immunity is generally granted for most injuries. Why? Because children often get injured at school, regardless of how much care and attention is given to them by school administrators.

Whether it’s a broken arm after falling off the monkey bars or a concussion at football practice, if the state allowed every parent with an injured child to sue the school district we’d soon seen the public school system drained of all their monetary resources and unable to educate.

You may have a personal injury claim, however, if you can prove that your child was injured due to the negligence of another third-party other than the school district. For instance, if your child was not on school property and was injured due to the negligence of another party, such as the property owner, or from defective equipment on the hay ride.

Exceptions to sovereign immunity and filing an injury claim

Now, with all that said that does not mean that school districts are never sued. If they are sued, however, the suit is generally not about one person’s personal injury but about broader issues such as the First Amendment, discrimination, or violations of federal law.

In recent years some states have also broadened the ability of claims against schools under premise liability laws if the school district, for example, has failed to maintain a safe environment for a child. Under premise liability laws the notion of foreseeable danger is important and could apply if a school failed to correct or prevent certain hazards such as a leaking roofs, unsanitary cafeteria conditions, wet floors, or exposed electrical equipment.

Bottom Line:

Due to the complexity of state laws regarding the ability to sue school districts it’s important to discuss your case with a personal injury lawyer who understands the laws in your state.

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