Legal Liability: The Consequences of School Injury

Article excerpt

In nearly all states and at the federal level, reports of school-associated injuries are not systematically recorded. In 2000, 31% of states and 90% of school districts required schools to write injury reports when a student is seriously injured on school property, (1) but such information is rarely aggregated and analyzed.

In the absence of ongoing surveillance, what is known about school-associated injuries to children and adolescents comes from a small collection of research studies. It is estimated that more than 3.7 million children and adolescents are injured at school each year. (2) Injuries at school constitute 1025% of all child and adolescent injuries, (2-5) Serious injuries to students are more likely to occur at home or in the community than at school. (6-8) Approximately 1 in 400 injury-related fatalities among children aged 5 to 19 years occur at school. (6) Most injuries (90%) to children and adolescents at school that result in hospitalization are unintentional, not the result of violence, and are most likely to occur on playgrounds, on athletic fields, or in gymnasiums. (3,8-15) Such injuries are most frequently caused by falls and sports activities. (13) Male students are injured more often than female students, and males are 3 times more likely than females to sustain injuries resulting in hospitalization. (6,10,13)

Little is known about school-related injuries to teachers and other adults. In 2004, 12 fatal occupational injuries to primary, secondary, and special education schoolteachers in the United States were reported; 5 of these were the result of transportation incidents. (16)

Previous studies have illustrated the societal costs of school injuries. Annual direct medical costs of school injuries have been estimated at $3.2 billion. (6) Nonfatal school injuries to children result in an additional $10 billion in lost future work and $34 billion in lessened quality of life. (2) These costs are paid by the families of those injured and by society as a whole. No previous studies have examined the direct cost of school injuries to schools.

Direct injury-related costs to schools include insurance premiums, legal fees, lost staff time, and award payments resulting from lawsuits brought against schools and school districts by injured persons or someone filing on their behalf (eg, by parents). A survey of school principals found that 25% of respondents had faced lawsuits or out-of-court settlements in the previous 2 years. (17) More than one half of the principals who responded (57%) claimed that these lawsuits affected school-related programming. Overall, 64% of the school principals stated that there had been changes in the kinds of school-related programming

offered (eg, physical education, recess, shop classes, and driver's education) because of fear of liability and its associated COSTS. (17) Although that study had a very low response rate (523 of 5000 randomly selected principals), it does suggest that lawsuits, or fear of lawsuits, are having an impact on school programming. A search of the public health, medicine, and education law peer-reviewed literature revealed no research studies describing the nature of lawsuits against schools for injury liability.

The purposes of this study were to examine the characteristics of cases involving injuries resulting in lawsuits against schools, to compare cases in which schools paid awards with those in which schools did not pay awards, and to compare student and nonstudent injuries resulting in lawsuits against schools.

METHODS

Data on personal injury lawsuits against schools and school districts were purchased from Jury Verdict Research (Data were sought from Jury Verdict Research[R]. Copyright 2003 by LRP Publications, 747 Dresher Rd. P.O. Box 980, Horsham, PA 19044-0980. www.juryverdictresearch.com. All rights reserved). JVR maintains a nationwide database of plaintiff and defense verdicts and settlements resulting from personal injury claims, including those with schools and school districts as defendants. …