Around the country, children and teens are celebrating the arrival of summer and the much-anticipated school break. While some teachers and school employees are sharing in that celebration, many members of the Bay District School community continue their year-round focus on education. One area that receives year-long attention is school safety. Preventing school injury requires vigilance and commitment. Lawyer Wes Pittman helps children and their parents when a student is hurt as a result of a school's negligence.
WJHG focused on this important issue recently when they reported that Bay District officials are adding 100 emergency kits to district schools. Earlier this year, School Superintendent Bill Husfelt and other officials met with Rick Rainer. Rainer was serving as principal of a high school in Alabama during 2007 when a massive tornado killed several students inside the school. He shared his first-hand experience seeing his deceased students in the rubble, but he was thankful his school had first aid kits and the employees knew how to use them.
At the time, Bay District had nothing like the new kits. Husfelt quickly ordered 100 emergency kits. With a price tag of $240 apiece, the kits include bandages, gauze, splints, eye wash, vests, flashlights, and many other safety-related items. Husfelt said it wasn't cheap, but would pay off in a single use. He added that paying $24,000 was much better than being caught after an emergency wishing they'd had the supplies. Kits are being distributed through the district based on school population figures, and local EMS will provide training on their use.
Edward Dragan, a school safety expert, authored a paper titled "Understanding Liability in School Cases." The paper notes that 53 million children spend approximately one-quarter of their waking hours either in school or on school grounds. Research shows unintentional injuries in schools are much more common than intentional harm in school. Around 10% to 25% of the 14 million unintentional injuries sustained by children under 15 each year occur in/around school. A majority of elementary student injuries are associated with playgrounds while athletics are tied to most secondary school injuries.
Dragan concludes school liability is less of a concern than people might assume, and he suggests schools win more decisive court verdicts than injured students do. However, he does concede that successful claims often involve fairly large verdicts. Charts in the paper show 36% of a representative set of cases with published results were either conclusively or "inconclusively" won by students. As an experienced injury law firm, we'd suggest a potential flaw in the conclusions. A large portion of settlements include confidentiality clauses, which means Dragan's statistics may be ignoring many cases in which plaintiffs' recovered monetary compensation.
Dragan notes that to win in court, a plaintiff must show that (1) the school had a duty to protect the student, (2) the school failed to exercise reasonable care, and (3) that failure led to injury. According to his research, cases often turn on whether the plaintiff can prove breach of duty, which in turn requires showing the defendant failed to provide reasonable care. This standard looks at factors including the age of the student, the type of injury, the defendant's role (ex. teacher, administrator, etc.), and the environment in which the injury occurred (ex. a gym class requires more supervision than a silent reading period). These are the type of issues Attorney Pittman considers and discusses with potential clients when helping evaluate the strength of their theoretical case.
One job of the civil side of our court system is to protect the wrongfully injured. We take our role in this system very seriously. Not every injury demands a lawsuit. Still, it is important that parents know they have a right to bring a claim when their child is injured because of the negligence of a teacher, administrator, school, or other school employee. Bringing a proper claim serves multiple ends – it not only helps compensate the plaintiff, but it also helps prevent future injuries. We are proud to be part of this process.