The primary responsibility of schools is to educate children—and to keep them safe while they learn. However, accidents happen despite the best of intentions on the part of educators. For example, in the last few years an athlete suffered heat exhaustion at cross-country practice, a student slipped and fell in the vestibule of the school during a period of snowy and rainy weather, and a student suffered burns during a class science experiment. Unfortunately, there are many instances of students experiencing harm or injury while at school. But these three cases have one thing in common: The students sued the school district for negligence.
Schools owe what’s legally referred to as “a duty of care” to their students. As a result, schools can be held liable for employees’ negligent behavior when that behavior leads to an injury. If a student is harmed because an employee fails to provide adequate supervision, issue proper instructions, properly maintain the school facilities, or provide warnings of known dangers, a school district may be legally required to pay a damage award to the student. As the leader of the school, principals must be aware of foreseeable harm and take prudent, reasonable steps to keep students, staff, and visitors safe. This article is a brief refresher on liability for school leaders.
An Overview of Negligence
An educator can be held liable for a student’s injury if evidence is presented in court. That’s because teachers have a duty to exercise reasonable care not to injure their students and to protect them from foreseeable dangers. Educators are not expected to ensure the safety of students in the event of unforeseeable risks or spontaneous, unanticipated acts, but they are required to promptly respond when confronted with a hazardous situation.
Teachers can be found liable if they have breached their duty of care. Teachers are negligent if they fail to act as a hypothetical reasonably prudent teacher (RPT) should act under the circumstances. For example, in Maryland, a teacher left a classroom unattended, and during this time a student threw three chairs and injured another student. The school district argued that the teacher, who was talking to another staff person in the hallway near the classroom door, could not have prevented the injury because it was unforeseeable. However, the court raised the issue of whether the teacher should have entered the classroom to stop the chairs from being thrown; instead, she tried to clear students from the room. While the trial court ruled in favor of the school district, the appellate court overruled the decision, finding the school district liable.
In circumstances with the potential for greater risk, such as on a field trip or in a chemistry class, an RPT should provide clearer warnings and closer supervision. For example, during a school-sponsored field trip to China, a student became severely ill and was diagnosed with encephalitis after a tick bite during a class hike. The Connecticut Supreme Court found that the private school had a duty to warn or protect students from insect-borne illnesses during field trips abroad because such illnesses were a foreseeable danger.
In another case involving a heightened level of danger, a student in a high school chemistry class suffered third-degree burns over one-third of his body after a failed science experiment—often referred to as the “rainbow experiment.” The U.S. Chemical Safety Board had given specific warnings to schools after this same experiment caused serious burns in another high school. However, these warnings went unheeded by the state’s department of education. In Yanes v. City of New York, neither the teacher’s actions nor the classroom complied with the science safety manual from the Chemical Safety Board.
When there is the potential for injury, such as during an athletic activity or field trip, students may be asked to sign waivers/permission slips that release the district from liability. These forms should be viewed as granting or denying permission to participate and as giving notice of potential harm. Educators and schools should not view them as a release from the duty to act reasonably, considering known risks or dangers that should have been foreseen through due diligence. For example, in Munn v. Hotchkiss School, neither the permission slip nor the waiver protected the school from its negligent behavior. Noted education law professor Perry Zirkel states that permission slips/release forms “are generally considered to be neither rock-solid protection nor legally valueless in terms of immunity.”
A teacher and/or school district can also be found liable if the teacher’s negligence caused the injury. In other words, the injured plaintiff not only must prove that the teacher was negligent but also that the negligence caused the injury. For example, a seventh grader who sued for injuries after he tripped in a concrete crack on the playground lost his case because the judge found that careful supervision would not have prevented the accident and that the condition of the schoolyard pavement was trivial. This accident was a normal, possible consequence of recess, which reasonable supervision would not have prevented. In fact, most student injuries are accidents that are not caused by teacher negligence.
Although injured students have sued both teachers and school districts for large sums of money, educators will likely not be held personally liable for negligence unless their actions rise to the level of recklessness or deliberate misconduct. Indeed, negligence challenges can be costly. For example, in the tick bite case, the jury awarded the student $41.5 million. In the case involving the “rainbow experiment,” the jury awarded the student $59.2 million.
Judges recognize that even a high degree of care may not prevent injuries in some situations. Therefore, a common defense against liability is known as the “assumption of risk.” This means that students who willingly engage in certain school activities such as competitive sports assume the normal and obvious risks inherent in their participation. For example, one court recently found that an injured baseball player assumed the risks associated with his sport.
Also, in some states, if an injured person’s own negligence contributed to their injury, an educator and/or school district might not be found liable. Several states have also adopted some variation of what’s called the defense of “comparative negligence,” in which the plaintiff and defendant are both considered negligent. As a result, a student might have their award reduced by 40% if the judge finds the student 40% responsible for their own injuries.
The following legal principles relevant to student injury apply in all states: Educators have a duty to act with reasonable care, they are negligent if they fail to do so, and they could be found liable if their negligence causes an injury. While each case is unique, the various defenses related to negligence and the laws protecting teachers from personal liability are also helpful for school leaders to keep in mind.
Suzanne E. Eckes is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is a co-author of Principals Avoiding Lawsuits and a past president of the Education Law Association. Todd A. DeMitchell is the John and H. Irene Peters professor in the Department of Education and the Justice Studies program at the University of New Hampshire. Richard Fossey is a professor emeritus and former Paul Burdin Endowed Professor of Education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Alford, A. (2020, January 6). Family files lawsuit against school district for burns suffered by Encinitas student in science experiment. CBS8. cbs8.com/article/news/local/lawsuit-filed-in-explosive-encinitas-school-science-experiment/509-8bf9a0bf-ed7d-4a90-bf64-2eb977a945a2
Elalouf v. Sch, Bd. of Broward Cnty., 311 So. 3d 863 (Fla. App. 2021).
Estes, G. (2018, July 20). Former St. X cross country runner sues school for heat-related injuries. The Courier-Journal. courier-journal.com/story/sports/preps/kentucky/2018/07/20/louisville-runner-sues-st-x-high-school-heat-injuries/807079002.
Giordano v. Delgado, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8 (M.D. Fla. 2020).
Gonzalez v. Bd. of Educ. of City of N.Y., 87 N.Y.S.3d 63 (A.D. 2 Dept. 2018).
Grady v. Chenango Val. Cent. Sch. Dist., 190 A.D.3d 1218 (App. Div. 2021).
Hodge v. Balt. City Bd. of Sch. Comm’rs, 2021 Md. App. LEXIS 399 (App. 2021).
K. A. v. City of N.Y.,134 N.Y.S.3d 423 (App. Div. 2020).
Munn v. Hotchkiss Sch., 165 A.3d 1167 (Conn. 2017).
Tzimopoulos v. Plainview-Old Bethpage, 64 N.Y.S.3d 323 (A.D. 2 Dept. 2017).
Yanes v. City of N.Y., 2020 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 4240 (2020).
Zirkel, P. A. (2005). Permission Forms. Principal, 84(3), 8–9.