In Texas, It’s Almost Impossible To Sue a Public School For Your Child’s Injury. Here’s Why
Every year between August and May, our law firm is usually inundated with phone calls from parents whose children were involved in some type of accident at school. From skinned knees to serious sports injuries due to the negligence of a school district employee, many of these parents are simply looking for some type of compensation and justice for their children’s injuries and bring a lawsuit against the school district.
Having practiced personal injury for over 25 years, these claims seem like fairly standard personal injury claims that stem from premises liability. Premises liability laws are set in place to protect persons from the negligence of the owners or managers of the premises; if I’m hurt because an employee forgot to mop up spilled liquid, then I should be compensated for my injuries. Simple right? So one would think that if my child was injured because the school janitor decided not to mop up spilled liquid, or because the school failed to maintain the swing set, or because a chemistry teacher negligently exposed an entire class to a harmful chemical, that these same premises liability laws would protect my child and compensate them for their injuries, right?
Unfortunately, in Texas, the answer is no. Here’s why:
What is Sovereign Immunity and Why Does It Protect Schools From Personal Injury Lawsuits?
The doctrine of “Sovereign Immunity” dates back to English common law and adapted into early American law which grants the government immunity from having a claim brought against them, fictitiously believing that “the king (government) can do no wrong.”
Texas courts have ruled that there are two legitimate reasons why we adopt a form of sovereign immunity into Texas law. The first is to allow the state to effectively function and execute imperative administrative actions. For example, you can’t file a lawsuit against the state because you disagree with a budget decision because doing so could potentially affect millions of residents. In this scenario, the substantial government interest would almost always outweigh your claim.
The second reason is to protect the state treasury; to “shield the public from the cost and consequences of imprudent actions of their government.”
Considering these concepts, in 1969 the Texas legislature enacted the “Texas Tort Claims Act” which added the following language to the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code:
A governmental unit in the state is liable for:
(1) property damage, personal injury, and death proximately caused by the wrongful act or omission or the negligence of an employee acting within his scope of employment if:
(A) the property damage, personal injury, or death arises from the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle or motor-driven equipment; and
(B) the employee would be personally liable to the claimant according to Texas law; and
(2) personal injury and death so caused by a condition or use of tangible personal or real property if the governmental unit would, were it a private person, be liable to the claimant according to Texas law.
Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 101.021.
Remedies from the courts from school districts who commit negligent acts that injure our children have proven nearly impossible.
In 1986, a court found that Lewisville Independent School District was not liable for injuries sustained by a spectator after bleachers collapsed during an athletic event.
Near Boerne, a child student playing in a sandbox when the ground caved in and dropped him into a rattlesnake den where he suffered near-fatal wounds from continuous bites. No case.
In Mission, while practicing for the school soccer team, the goal set up by a district employee collapsed on an unsuspecting student, splitting open his head requiring a trip to the emergency room. Unable to pursue.
In another instance, the son of a Houston-area attorney was the victim of a broken jaw at the hands of three Wilson Montessori School employees “after being carried through a hallway from the cafeteria to the principal’s office, while being held upside down.” When asked for the video evidence of the incident, the recording was no longer available after an administrator “accidentally” recorded over the video. To date, the father has been unable to recover damages for his son.
Although many of these instances seem grave, it is important to note that none of the victims received compensation for their injuries which is a testament, for better or for certainly worse, to how unbelievably impossible it is to bring an injury claim against a school district.
Are There Any Exceptions Where You Can Sue A School in Texas For Personal Injury?
Yes, the law and Texas courts’ interpretations of the law are extremely specific when they explicitly state that you may bring a cause of action (a lawsuit) against a school if the personal injury or death arises from the operation or use of a motor-driven vehicle and the employee would be personally liable. In layman’s terms, if your child was a passenger on any vehicle driven by a district employee, was injured as a result of an accident involving the vehicle itself, and the employee was at fault for the accident, then you have a rightful claim to compensation for their injuries. However, damages paid to victims are capped to $100,000 per incident, meaning if a bus full of children were hurt or killed in an accident, the plaintiffs would have to split the $100,000, potentially nowhere near enough to pay for medical expenses for every child. Also, these remedies do not include any other acts of negligence committed by the driver such as negligent supervision of students within the vehicle; IE in McAllen, a court ruled in favor of McAllen ISD and against a family who sought damages after their son was stabbed to death while riding the school bus.
Another potential work around this barrier is if your child who suffered an injury has a mental or physical disability. If this is the case, you may be able to file a lawsuit in federal court if it can be proven that the school district demonstrated a systemic pattern of violations of civil rights laws (IE the Americans with Disabilities Act) or a conscious indifference to protect the child.
Does Sovereign Immunity Also Apply To Private Schools And Catholic Schools in Texas?
No. In Texas, private schools and Catholic schools are not protected under the sovereign immunity doctrine. If your child is injured due to the negligence of the staff at the private school they attend, you may very well have an injury claim to pursue for your child. Although, determining whether your child was injured due to the negligence of the staff could often be difficult to determine, speaking with an experienced injury lawyer may help you navigate your child’s personal injury claim.