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In Loco Parentis: Litigating Against a School District for Damages Occurring on School Busses (Part 1)

Part 1 of 3: My Son or Daughter was injured in a Fight on the Bus to School, Who is Responsible?

School busses may be safer than driving your kids to school, but only in terms of the frequency of auto accidents. The prevalence of violence and bullying on school busses has increased in recent years – a quick YouTube search for school bus fights returns over 190 thousand videos – and to the detriment of our educational system as a whole. The conventional wisdom of “kids will be kids” has allowed this issue to malinger and metastasize into a cancer that threatens to cripple an already ailing educational system. This phase-based ideology fails to appreciate or even recognize the confluence of influences affecting modern public school society; from gangs and drugs, to social media sites like https://www.worldstarhiphop.com/ that promote and even glorify violence, has led to a critical mass where our children are no longer safe on their way to school. The passivity associated with school bus violence has begun to subside in recent years, but the problem still exists.

These incidents are increasingly vicious and have gone viral with calls of “Do it for the Vine” ringing out as helpless and often unsuspecting children are assaulted by their classmates as bus drivers look on. Oftentimes, these altercations leave students bloodied and bruised, and have even resulted in broken bones and concussions. These injuries increasingly require extensive medical care, which can become financially burdensome for parents. Fortunately, most children have limited medical insurance through their school, so most school-related injuries are covered. However, it is often the case that these insurance policies only cover accidents, and they require parents to pursue the perpetrators of intentional assaults and batteries individually and separately from the school to get insurance restitution. This means that parents can face nagging liability for medical expenses with their only recourse resting in the penniless pockets of a high school bully.

Beyond the physical injuries, the psychological and social damages resulting from these interactions can be devastating. According to the Office of Veterans’ Affairs, which compiles statistics on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, nearly 60% of children 17 years of age or younger reported having experienced a violence or victimization while at school. Further, while no definite statistics exist on the subject, preliminary data suggests that roughly 8% of these children develop symptoms of PTSD. These types of psychological injuries can have profound sociological impacts on the children involved in them. This near-constant exposure to violence can lead to dissociative personality disorder, introversion, scholastic decline, a decreased sensitivity to violence, and even suicide. Aside from the obvious damages of this psychological harm our children are exposed to on the bus, there are often large and indefinite medical and psychological treatments can rack up enormous bills as well.

The question often remaining in these types of cases is whether or not the school is liable for these damages. In the past, due to the doctrine of sovereign immunity, it was unfeasible to successfully bring suit against a public entity. However, as the law has progressed in the last fifty years, more and more states have opened themselves to limited tort liability. In these cases, the doctrine of respondeat superior applies, and the tortious actions of employees of the state and its entities become transferrable to the state itself. While it is now possible to sue, there are some important limits to the state’s liability, which mostly concur with the normal operations of respondeat superior and negligent hiring.

This liability is only heightened by the possibility of injury to minors, which is further amplified by the responsibility of someone watching over your kids. This idea, known as in loco parentis, Latin for “in place of the parent,” places a heightened duty of care on people acting in place of parents when caring for children. This law applies to anyone who sequesters a child from their parents, thus replacing them as their guardian. This has been the classic method of reaching public schools for liability and it remains so today. Bus drivers are trusted school officials (in the state of Florida are direct employees of the school district) who pick up your children every day and drop them off home all the same. They are expected and entrusted to care for your children as you would and to deliver them to their school safely.

Therefore, when an incident occurs on their bus, bus drivers are expected to use all reasonable care to prevent and to stop instances of violence from occurring and harm from befalling our children. The problem here thus becomes defining reasonable care. Fortunately, from a litigious perspective, school boards often create training guides, or driver handbooks, or some other training program that specifically instructs bus drivers on how to deal with potential violence on the bus. In fact, the Pinellas County School Board Handbook Chapter 2.02 (P,Q,R, and T[1]) specifically instruct drivers how to handle these situations. While some may consider these instructions to be inadequate in light of the modern era of violence, it is not possible to successfully challenge a state entity on discretionary ministerial decisions, and thus is not open for litigation.

However, it is very possible to find a bus driver, and thus the state, since individual public employees have a qualified individual immunity form tort action, liable for negligently allowing harm to occur when they fail to live up to the standards the industry creates. In this instance, it is very probable that the bus driver failed to adequately enforce the rules of student conduct and live up to the standard of taking all possible reasonable steps to prevent or end violence on the bus.

If your child has been injured while on a school bus, you should hire an aggressive and experienced attorney to litigate your case as soon as possible. It is vital that you contact an attorney sooner rather than later, so that they can begin to investigate the incident and preserve evidence to begin the process of litigating your case. In instances like this, you need successful, proven attorneys on your side to advocate on behalf of your family.

Sibley Dolman Gipe Accident Injury Lawyers, PA
800 North Belcher Road
Clearwater, FL