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Are public schools immune from personal injury lawsuits?

A recent case next door in Philadelphia hinged on whether the local school district could be sued for a child’s injury in gym class. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court said yes.

Contrary to a stubborn myth, government entities do not have blanket immunity from lawsuits. You can sue the schools if your child is injured through negligence or misconduct of school personnel. But there are limitations on damages and there is a 90-day window to file notice.

Was it negligent to have bare concrete walls in the gym?

The parents of a (then) 9-year-old boy sued the Philadelphia public schools after their son was seriously injured in phy ed class. The gym teacher had the students running a relay race in the gymnasium. The boy stumbled and crashed into an unpadded concrete wall. He suffered a cut on his head and a concussion. In addition to missing more than a month of school, he continued to have memory problems more than a year after the accident.

The school district invoked sovereign immunity, the legal doctrine that protects government entities and government personnel from lawsuits. While sovereign immunity was once broader, there are many exceptions through legislation and court precedents. The disputed liability ultimately reached the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

-- The plaintiffs argued that the school was liable, under a specific exclusion in Pennsylvania’s Political Subdivision Torts Act. They said the school was negligent for failing to pad the walls of the gym for the safety of students.

-- The Philly schools claimed immunity, arguing the exemption did not apply. The high court upheld the real property exception, saying that an unpadded wall could constitute “negligence in the care, custody and control” of the buildings and grounds.

The ruling (Brewington v. Phila. Sch. Dist.) allows the family to proceed with their lawsuit against the school district.

Does New Jersey recognize sovereign immunity?

The New Jersey Tort Claims Act retains limited immunity for public schools and other government entities. However, sovereign immunity has mostly been stripped away when there is negligence or intentional acts on the part of school personnel. This means that you might have standing to sue the school district for injuries on school grounds or school-related activities, such as:

  • Playground equipment in disrepair
  • Hazardous conditions in the school cafeteria
  • Failure to supervise during a field trip
  • Physical or sexual assault by a teacher
  • Sports injuries caused by a coach’s actions
  • A bus accident if the bus driver was at fault

Unique rules apply when the defendant is the government

Under the New Jersey Tort Claims Act, you must file a notice of claim within 90 days. Missing this deadline could forfeit your right to sue. After six months, you can file the actual lawsuit.

The Act also limits monetary damages in personal injury lawsuits against a government body or political subdivision (such as the local school district). You are entitled to recovery for all medical bills and property loss. However, victims are not entitled to damages for pain and suffering unless the injury resulted in disfigurement, dismemberment or permanent loss of use. The government also has immunity from punitive damages.

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