If your child was hurt at school, you need to know who can be held responsible. Unfortunately, this can be a complex situation. It is easy to assume that the school itself is liable, but this is not always the case.
If other parties are involved, like volunteers, contractors, or even the parents of another student, they may be solely or jointly liable. It is important to hire an experienced personal injury attorney, as their expertise will be vital when navigating such a complex situation.
However, you should also familiarize yourself with the basics so that you know what to expect. Read on to learn more about determining liability if your child was hurt at school.
Schools Must Provide Safe Conditions for Students
Schools do have a legal responsibility to keep students safe. This includes everything from ensuring the campus is safe to doing thorough background checks on employees. When a student is hurt because their school did not provide safe conditions, the school may be liable. However, it is important to keep in mind that a school is not automatically liable if a student gets hurt on campus or on a field trip.
Schools Can Be Held Liable for the Actions of Employees
A school may be liable for a student’s injury if unsafe conditions on campus, such as a slippery stairwell, lead to an injury. However, schools may be held liable for the actions of an employee.
Often, both the school and the individual employee will be liable. For a school to be held liable for the actions of an employee, the employee usually must have been working at the time. If an employee causes an injury to a child when they are not on the clock, it is likely that only the individual will be liable.
Schools are often held liable for the actions of their employees if the employee acts with malice or negligence when performing their duties. For example, disciplining students is part of a principal’s job. However, if the principal goes too far and strikes a student, both the principal and the school can be held liable.
A School’s Liability for Injuries Caused by a Third Party
In some cases, schools can even be held liable if someone who is not a school employee injures a child. This injury has to either happen on campus or on a school-organized trip. The individual who caused the injury may be a contractor, a volunteer, or another parent.
Negligent vs. Intentional Injuries
In school injury cases (and personal injury cases in general), it is important to distinguish between injuries caused by negligence and those caused intentionally. Schools are often found liable for a child’s injury if they negligently fail to provide the child with safe conditions on campus.
If an employee, another student, another student’s parent, or any other adult affiliated with the school intentionally causes an injury, the school and the individual may be held jointly liable.
Examples of Negligence by Schools
If you aren’t familiar with the sort of negligence that could leave a school liable for a student’s injury, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with some examples. School negligence could include:
• Injuries sustained during school sports or P.E., especially if the injury is due to bad equipment or inadequate supervision.
• Food poisoning from cafeteria food.
• Poorly maintained stairwells.
• Spills that were not cleaned up in a timely fashion.
• Ice, snow, or rainwater that is not cleaned up in a timely fashion.
Of course, there are many other situations in which a school could be liable for a student’s injury because of their negligence. It’s best to consult with an experienced personal injury attorney if you are unsure whether a school’s negligence was severe enough for them to be held liable.
Liability for an Injury Caused by Another Student
If your child is injured by another student during school or a school-related activity, the school may be held liable. If they did not provide adequate supervision which would have prevented such an injury, the school can be named in a lawsuit. Also, schools can be sued for bullying-related injuries if they knew what was going on and did not stop it.
It is important to note that the other student’s parents could be found liable in a personal injury case. If parents are aware that their child is harming another student and they don’t do anything to stop it, they may have to pay damages in a personal injury lawsuit. However, it can be difficult to prove that the other student’s parents knew of their child’s harmful activities.
Filing a Personal Injury Claim for a School Injury
The process for filing a personal injury claim may seem complicated, but a good attorney can guide you through it. However, you should still learn the basics of filing a personal injury claim so that you know what to expect when you contact an attorney. This will help you work with your attorney more effectively.
Finding a Good Personal Injury Attorney
Once you have decided that you would like to file a personal injury claim for a school injury, the first step is finding a good personal injury attorney. School injury cases can be quite complex, so it is important to find an attorney who has experience with these kinds of cases. Any reputable law firm will be happy to talk about similar cases they’ve taken on.
Once you’ve identified a promising attorney, you have a consultation with them. Most attorneys are willing to do this at no charge. If both you and the attorney feel that your case is a good fit for their practice, you can move forward with the process.
The Attorney Will Conduct an Exploratory Investigation
If your attorney feels that you might have a legitimate case, they and their staff will conduct an exploratory investigation. This investigation will not only look into the evidence, they will determine who could be held liable. Once the parties who may be liable have been identified, your attorney will look into the insurance and assets that these parties hold.
For a personal injury attorney to take your case, they usually look for both evidence that the incident happened as you claim and for evidence that the plaintiff can pay a settlement. A school certainly would be able to pay a settlement, as they will have liability insurance for this eventuality.
The Attorney May Offer You a Fee Agreement
If the results of the attorney’s exploratory investigation are promising, they may offer you a fee agreement. This agreement specifies the attorney’s compensation, which is almost always a percentage of the settlement or damages awarded by the court.
Very few reputable personal injury attorneys will charge their clients a fee up-front. If you sign the fee agreement, this means that you have officially hired that attorney. They will file the personal injury complaint shortly.
Filing & Serving a Personal Injury Complaint
The next step in your case is filing and serving a personal injury complaint. You don’t have to worry about filing this complaint yourself. Your attorney will file the complaint with the district court whose jurisdiction includes the school. The complaint includes a broad description of the incident and of the damages you are seeking.
Once the complaint has been filed with the relevant district court, it must be served to the defendant. Your attorney will hire a process server to do this. The complaint will be physically handed to the defendant, as will a summons telling the defendant when they must appear in court.
Dealing With the Defendant’s Attorney
If the defendant has an insurance policy that covers the situation in the complaint, they will inform their insurance. The insurance company will then hire an attorney. If the defendant does not have a policy relevant to the lawsuit, they will likely hire an attorney themselves. Schools always carry liability insurance with broad coverage, so their insurance company will likely hire an attorney immediately.
Your own attorney will deal with the defendant’s attorney. You will not have to deal with the defendant’s attorney very much, if at all. Your attorney will likely begin pursuing a settlement immediately.
The Discovery Period
The next step is called “discovery.” Your attorney and the defendant’s attorney will compile evidence and testimony. Each side is required to share this with the other side. The initial court appearance should happen early in the discovery period.
At this court date, the attorneys will inform the judge of the progress of the trial and mediation or arbitration. The judge will set a trial date, though you should keep in mind that this trial date will likely be pushed back several times. Also, it is unlikely that the case will make it that far.
It is possible that the case will go all the way through discovery and that the defendant’s attorney will file a summary motion asking the judge to throw the case out. This motion is usually unsuccessful. It is also very likely that the defendant will agree to pay a settlement before then.
The vast majority of personal injury lawsuits are settled well before trial. This is because most personal injury attorneys will not agree to take a case and file a lawsuit on behalf of their client unless they feel that it is likely the case will end with a quick settlement.
Mandatory Settlement Conferences
Most district courts require plaintiffs and defendants in civil cases to participate in mandatory settlement conferences. This requirement is intended to bring the case to an end before the court has to adjudicate it. This is important because courts are almost always overloaded with cases. It is likely that your attorney and the defendant’s attorney are already participating in settlement meetings.
However, these mandatory settlement conferences can re-start negotiations if they have previously broken down.
Preparing for Trial
If the attorneys are unable to reach a settlement by the end of the mandatory settlement conferences, they will start filing motions to determine which evidence will be allowed at trial. They will also select the jury. It is possible for both sides to agree on trying the case in front of a judge (rather than a jury) but this is uncommon for personal injury cases.
If your case actually makes it to trial, you can expect the trial to last several days. Your attorney will present evidence and witness testimony. You or your child may have to testify. You or your child may also have to submit to cross-examination from the defendant’s attorney.
Finally, both attorneys will make their closing arguments. Next, the judge or the jury will determine fault and the amount of the damages (if the defendant is found to be at fault). However, you should keep in mind that the defendant can choose to appeal the decision.
The Appeals Process
The defendant may choose to appeal the decision, especially if the amount awarded in damages is very large. This appeals process can take anywhere from several months to several years, though you should be prepared for it to take years. However, it is possible that the defendant decides their appeal is hopeless and decides to simply pay the damages that the court required them to pay.
Again, it is important to keep in mind that it is very unlikely for your personal injury case to ever get to this part of the process.