Last week, at the conclusion of a trial, a jury found that a 12 year-old's school was responsible to pay over $280,000 as compensatory damages for the serious personal injuries that student sustained when a classmate assaulted and beat him to the point where he lost consciousness. The natural question that arises from this story is straightforward:
Why should the school be held responsible for an assault - which is technically a criminal act - that was perpetrated by someone else?
The answer to this question requires a basic understanding of where a school's responsibility for its students' safety begins and ends.
On the one hand, New York's courts have long held that during school hours and while on school premises (the schools are, generally speaking, not liable in negligence for acts that occurred during non-school hours and off school grounds), the school stands in the shoes of its student's actual parents, or in legal terms, is deemed the de facto guardian or parent of the child, and is therefore responsible to protect its students from foreseeable risks or harm; on the other hand, the courts have also recognized that the schools cannot be held legally responsible for a student's personal injuries that resulted from a spontaneous, or unforeseeable act.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that many of the personal injury lawsuits that are brought against schools ultimately turn on one issue:
Was the manner in which the child was injured foreseeable to the school?
Stated differently, had the school (via its employees) acted reasonably under the circumstances, would this incident have been prevented from occurring?
How Some Plaintiffs Have Managed to Prove That the School Had "Notice" of the Threat to the Student
An Important Caveat
At the risk of stating the obvious, it is far from simple to prove that the school had either actual or constructive notice of the danger to the student, and that, had the school discharged its responsibilities appropriately, would likely have prevented the incident from occurring. As a result, even in cases where you "know" that the school didn't do the right thing, unless you're able to prove that they had notice of the danger with enough time to prevent the incident, there remains a strong possibility that your case will be dismissed.