Courting Justice: Civil Liability and the Public School System

August 26, 2013

By Robert N. Hunn

Is your son or daughter going back to public school this fall? Perhaps it’s not a bad thing to know a little bit about the school’s legal liability should your child be injured at school. In Pennsylvania, a public school’s liability for harming a student is governed by a statute called the Political Subdivision Tort Claim Act. As such, the school is virtually immune from being liable for injuries to your child caused by the school’s negligence.

Immune? Did this blogger just say that a school can hurt my child and there’s nothing I can do about it? I can’t sue the crap out of the school district on my child’s behalf?

Well….no. This blogger said “virtually immune.” There are certain exceptions to the immunity statute that would permit you to sue. These exceptions include: (1) a carelessly driven school vehicle; (2) a defect of the property or street or sidewalk; a defect in a tree; and (4) injuries caused by school-owned domestic animals. That’s right. If little Sally gets bit by the classroom gerbil you may have a case. If Sally is bitten by a black bear, forget it. You can’t sue.

Other provisions of this law make it even harder to sue the school. Let’s go back to the scenario where little Sally is bitten by the classroom gerbil. Let’s say she even needs three stitches to close the wound. Sorry. Little Sally is out of luck. Under the law, you can only sue if (1) the person dies or (2) suffers a permanent loss of bodily function, permanent disfigurement or permanent dismemberment, and only if her medical bills for such an injury are greater than $1,500.00. It seems that the gerbil will have to bite off little Sally’s finger in order to bring a lawsuit against the school.

The last thing you should know about the school’s liability is that the most that can be ordered to compensate a child is $500,000.00. Their liability is capped at this amount.

Everything I’ve said so far applies to a personal injury claim under tort law. However, if you sue under federal law for a civil rights violation, none of the above limitations apply. For example, I once sued a school for firing a teacher who was a pedophile but agreed to keep it a secret so the teacher could continue to teach and the school wouldn’t get the bad publicity. Ten years later, he was caught molesting a young girl in a different school district. While the court ultimately held that we had sufficient evidence to prove that the school district hid the fact that the teacher was a pedophile, too much time elapsed between the firing and the assault to say that keeping the secret was causative of the assault.

Anyway, the most important thing a parent can do is make sure the school grounds are safe for your child. Check out the playground, the sidewalks and the overall condition of the school. If you see something that looks like it could be a danger to a child, report the condition and keep on the school to fix it.