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Establishing Liability in New York City School Injury Cases

Two high school students reportedly suffered severe burns in New York City while conducting a routine lab experiment in class.
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According to news reports, the chemistry instructor had hoped to offer students a unique display of rainbow flames resulting from burning different kinds of nitrates. However, the buildup of volatile fumes instead ignited into a fireball that shot across the room, severely injuring two students. None who were present were wearing the appropriate safety goggles, witnesses say, and its alleged that a full minute passed before a fire extinguisher was located and used to put out the flames.

As the students continue to recover, the case remains under investigation. However, it seems clear there was at least some degree of negligence. The teacher and the school had a duty to ensure the safety of those children, and it seems that duty may have been breached.

That is a key element to prove anytime one is exploring the possibility of suing a school district in New York.

Lawsuits against school districts can be somewhat complicated, however, because they generally enjoy something called sovereign immunity. Quite literally, this concept means “the king” is immune from liability. In the U.S., the government is “king,” and school districts, as government agencies by extension, enjoy some of those same protections.

However, there are always exceptions. Section 8 of the New York Claims Act is the state’s waiver of immunity from liability, in which it accepts liability and consents to have the same determined in accordance with the same rules the supreme court deems applicable to individuals and corporations, with some exceptions.

This is important when you consider that children under the age of 14 sustain more than 14 million unintentional injuries each year, according to New Jersey consulting firm Education Management Consulting LLC. While a lot of media attention focuses on violent incidents, the vast majority of these incidents involve unintentional injuries. It’s estimated that about 1 in every 14 students will suffer some type of injury that is temporarily disabling or requires medical attention.

For younger students, playgrounds are the site of most injuries. For secondary students, physical education classes and organized sports are where we see the most problems.

With regard to how many of those incidents result in successful liability claims, the answer is that claims generally fall in favor of the school, but that could be changing. A 2008 study found that over a 15-year period from 1990 to 2005, school districts were triumphant in about two-thirds of those cases. Per capita, New York state had the highest number of claims, with 23 decisions per 1 million students.

In determining whether a school is negligent, courts will generally consider:

  • Whether the school had a duty to protect the student.
  • What the reasonable standard of care was, considering the circumstances.
  • Whether there was a breach of that reasonable standard that led to the child’s injury.
  • Whether the victim contributed to the injury through his or her own negligence.
  • Whether an actual injury is substantiated.

Generally, schools and their employees are expected to provide adequate supervision, close supervision of children who are engaged in certain high-risk functions and to properly maintain the facilities and equipment. Any failures or oversights in this regard may be grounds for a lawsuit.

The Law Offices of Ira S. Newman provides education litigation representation in New York. Call 516-487-7375 or send us an e-mail.

Additional Resources:
Understanding Liability in School Cases, Dec. 2009, Edward F. Dragan, Ed.D., Principal Consultant, Education management Consulting, LLC
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New York Bullying Lawsuit Aims to Effect Change in Education System, Sept. 25, 2013, New York Education Lawyer Blog