Government Immunity from Lawsuits for Matters Involving Schools and University
In some cases, the government (including school districts and universities) and its employees may be immune from a lawsuit, even though their actions (or inaction) resulted in harm, injuries, or death.
There are different and often complex rules that determine when this immunity exists, which often depends upon the type of governmental entity involved. As such, this article presents only a very limited overview of governmental immunity law.
For the federal government, civil lawsuits for injuries and death must be brought in accordance with the Federal Tort Claims Act. This act has complex rules and regulations concerning when the federal government can be sued for a tort, and the procedures that must be followed. In most school violence cases, it is the state and local governments, not the federal government, that may be responsible. The next section focuses on state and local liability.
School Immunity and Liability
Most cases involving school violence, abuse, or hazing fall under state law involving organizations or entities created by state or local governments (such as universities and school districts). Thus any immunity granted to these entities is derived from the state or municipality in which these entities operate.
In New York, there are explicit statutory procedures that must be followed when a state or municipal organization is sued for a tort, such as negligence for hazing, school violence, teacher-student sexual misconduct, bullying, or similar actions. Additionally case law and statutes must be examined to determine whether the tort may be brought in the first place (and thus is not barred by statute).
For important information concerning the timing and required notice for suing state and local governments, see Suing a Governmental Entity in New York – Filing a Notice of Claim.
When Immunity May Apply
Schools are often granted immunity from negligence claims involving discretionary acts. This would involve cases in which an injury results from the school making a decision based on its best judgment and on common practices. This rule provides schools with a certain amount of leeway in decision-making so that the threat of litigation does not impede decision making on all matters of business.
As an example, a school administrator may have discretion in considering whether to expel a student in a situation in which expulsion is not explicitly required. If the administrator is sued, the administrator may have immunity against such suit.
When Immunity Does Not Apply
School districts are generally not provided legal immunity against negligence claims for ministerial acts, including failing to protect the safety and welfare of students, particularly if such failure involves disregarding the districts own rules and procedures.
As an example, if a student is being bullied and threatened with physical harm, school officials will likely have a duty to take appropriate action to cause such bullying and threats to cease. They also must take care not to hire teachers who may pose a risk of inappropriate sexual conduct with students. Increasingly, school districts are taking a stance on social media bullying by one or more students against another student.
Besides negligence claims arising from ministerial acts, a second exception to school’s legal liability from immunity involves situations where the school or its employees act in a willful or intentional fashion which results directly in an injury. This standard can apply to both ministerial and discretionary decisions. This is often referred to as acting with deliberate indifference to risk.
For example, if school officials repeatedly ignore clear warning signs that a student is being bullied and that student later takes his own life because of such bullying, the district cannot claim immunity from liability because the school willfully ignored a potential risk.
How We Help Those Injured as a Result of School District Negligence
We help students who have been injured as the result of school district negligence, such as on-campus and cyberbullying, assault, and teacher misconduct. We offer a no-obligation, free consultation so that we may learn about your case. We typically represent clients on a contingency-fee basis; if this is the basis of our fees for your matter, you will not owe us any fee unless we are successful in recovering compensation for you.