School Accidents and Compensation for Injuries
Each day parents leave their school-aged child in the care of the school district and its employees. While in the care and custody of the school its employees are required to supervise the children to prevent foreseeable personal or emotional injuries, commonly known as the “duty of supervision,”. Unfortunately, despite the affirmative duty to supervise, children are frequently injured while under the care and supervision of the school district. Oftentimes these injuries result from the combination of physical or emotional bullying by a fellow student and the negligent acts of omissions of school supervisors.
When most people think about an injury, they often imagine physical injury, however, school-age children are oftentimes emotionally injured as a result of psychological bullying by their classmates. Today, electronics and social media presence are extremely prevalent in the everyday life of a school-age child.
Children often operate several social media pages thus making these children far more susceptible to the emotional bullying of their peers than their parents ever had to endure.
Bullying is a verbal or physical behavior that intends to intimidate or harm another student. Bullying may take the form of:
- Scrutinizing or harassing a person about their gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion.
- Spreading rumors that are untrue or meant to harm or defame another student.
- Physically harassing another student by intimidating them, hurting them, or making them physically unsafe in any way.
- Disseminating explicit or nude photos of another student.
If your child has been hurt while under the care and supervision of the school, it is important that you understand the duties your child’s school has in supervising your child while on the premises attending school as well as after school activities. Additionally, it is equally important that you understand the statutory protections afforded to school districts which limits their liability, otherwise known as “sovereign immunity.”
Duties Owed to Students
Supervision of Students
A public school owes a general duty of supervision to the students placed in its care. A negligent failure to carry out this duty of supervision is actionable. Rupp v. Bryant, 417 So. 2d 658, 666 (Fla. 1982). Although teachers, schools, or school districts are not insurers of their pupils’ safety, they have a legal duty to exercise reasonable care in supervising students in their charge on the school premises. Concepcion v. Archdiocese of Miami, 693 So. 2d 1103, 1105 (Fla. 3d DCA 1997); Benton v. School Bd., 386 So. 2d 831 (Fla. 4th DCA 1980). The duty to supervise and to protect extends to student activities that occur in a classroom and on other parts of the school grounds. See, e.g., Collins v. School Bd., 471 So. 2d 560 (Fla. 4th DCA 1985); Leahy v. School Bd., 450 So. 2d 883 (Fla. 5th DCA 1984). This duty includes the duty to supervise both academic activities as well as school-sponsored extracurricular events or activities.
Whether the acts or omissions of the school with regard to student supervision constitute a breach of duty must still be analyzed under traditional negligence principles. Ankers v. District School Bd., 406 So. 2d 72, 73 (Fla. 2d DCA 1981). In this context, the duty of care is the care that a person of ordinary prudence, charged with the duties involved, would exercise under the same circumstances. Collins v. School Bd. at 564.
If a student is injured while a class is in session but the teacher is absent from the classroom, liability depends on the circumstances under which the teacher was absent. Relevant considerations include (1) the activity in which the students are engaged; (2) the instrumentalities with which they are working, considering their inherent danger; (3) the age and composition of the class; (4) the teacher’s past experience with the class and its behavior; and (5) the reason for and the duration of the teacher’s absence. see at 564 (Fla. 4th DCA 1985). If a teacher stays with his or her class instead of accompanying a single student elsewhere, the school is not liable for injury to the single student while outside of the classroom. The teacher’s primary duty is to the remainder of the class. Benton v. School Bd. at 834.
Travel to and from School
A school district does not have any duty to its students while the school does not have either custody or control over the students. Therefore, the school district owes no duty to its students while they are enroute to or from their school bus stops. Instead, during that time, custody and control is considered to be with the child’s parents. Francis v. Sch. Bd., 29 So. 3d 441, 444 (Fla. 4th DCA 2010) (parents must “ensure the safe travel of their students during the portions of each trip to and from school and home when the students are not under the custody and control of the school district, including during each trip to and from home and the assigned bus stop”); see Fla. Admin. Code Ann. r. 6A-3.0121(2)(c)(1) (2019). In other words, a school board’s control over its students regarding transportation extends from when a school bus picks up a student at a bus stop to the school door. When a student is injured before reaching a designated bus stop, or after leaving one, that student is outside the school board’s duty of care. Harrison v. Escambia County School Bd., 434 So. 2d 316, 319 (Fla. 1983).
Under certain circumstances, the duty of supervision extends beyond the school day, however, the duty exists only to the extent that the school and its employees have the authority to control the behavior of a student. Thus, the duty to supervise student organizations, social activities, and after school sports exists if they are school-sponsored programs and the school has assumed the authority to control the organization or activity. Rupp v. Bryant at 666. This extended also includes the duty to supervise children while they are riding the school-operated bus system to and from their destination, meaning the bus driver and/or monitor is tasked with the safety of its children. Brantly v. Dade County School Bd., 493 So. 2d 471, 472 (Fla. 3d DCA 1986).
Foreseeability of Harm
Under a negligence theory of liability, a wrongdoer (“tortfeasor”) is liable only for the harms of which are reasonably foreseeable. In a school setting, student misbehavior is itself foreseeable and, therefore, will not relieve the school from liability for failure to supervise the children in its control. It is not necessary that a supervisor be able to foresee the exact nature and extent of the injuries in the precise manner in which they occurred, only that general harm was likely to result. Collins v. School Bd. At 566 (physical assault by student with violent history was reasonably foreseeable). Due to the pure volume of young developing students on the school premises at any given time it is reasonably foreseeable that an injury may occur, therefore meaning the school district may be liable for their failure to supervise.
Surely, this makes it sound like suing a school is relatively simple and that they are likely liable for all injuries caused to the children on the premises, however, I assure you that that is not the case. As you could imagine, a school teacher cannot always protect each kid from all potential dangers lurking on the premises, as doing so would require the teacher to place each child in a bubble for 8 hours a day. Therefore, whether a teacher has breached a duty of care by failing to provide adequate supervision is usually a question of fact for the jury. Benton v. School Bd. at 835.
Florida Schools and Sovereign Immunity
The federal government and all branches and agencies at the state, county, and municipal level are known as political subdivisions, which amongst other things, means that they have “sovereign immunity.”
Sovereign immunity (sometimes called government immunity) is a form of protection that makes government entities and employees immune from lawsuits, except in specific circumstances. The idea comes from old English law that prevented citizens from bringing up lawsuits or criminal charges against their government. This is not to say, however, that one cannot successfully file a lawsuit against a school or other government entity; it is just difficult and must fit within certain parameters.
The main distinguishing factor that determines whether the school could be sued is whether or not the school’s actions were discretionary or operational. Basically, this means that if your student was injured doing some planned or sanctioned “operational” activity, the school is most likely not liable. However, if the harmful act was discretionary, meaning it was not a planned or sanctioned act, then there is room for possible compensation.
Filing a Claim
Florida requires that anyone who wants to file a lawsuit against a school district must first file a formal complaint. This complaint lays out the nature of the grievance and injury in writing and is filed with the clerk of court. Depending on the situation, there will be a very short period in which this can be done, often 30 to 90 days. This, of course, attempts to settle the situation without an actual lawsuit. Before you file a complaint against a school board, you should first contact a personal injury attorney for advice.
Contacting a Child Injury Attorney at Dolman Law Group
If your child was injured due to the negligence of a Florida school, you may be able to collect compensatory and punitive damages. Call Dolman Law Group today for a free evaluation of your case. There is no cost to speak with an experienced personal injury attorney that specializes in civil trial cases. Collecting damages from a Florida school is difficult, but not impossible. Call us today at 727-451-6900.