Students occasionally suffer personal injuries on school grounds or during school activities. These injuries may result from a variety of circumstances, including slips and falls (premises liability); fights; athletic activities; exposure to asbestos, lead, or other toxic materials; sexual abuse; food poisoning; and school bus accidents.
Teachers and other school officials have a legal obligation to adequately supervise students on school property (during school hours) and while engaged in school activities. School officials also have a duty to conduct background checks when hiring teachers, coaches, and staff. And school officials are required to keep the school premises in a reasonably safe condition.
But because public schools are governmental entities, they usually have limited liability for personal injuries due to a legal doctrine known as sovereign immunity. Sovereign immunity (also known as governmental immunity) in American law was derived from the British common law doctrine that the King could do no wrong—and thus could not be sued. Sovereign immunity varies from state to state but typically applies to state governments as well as the federal government.
For example, sovereign immunity protects the state and its various provisions of state government—including agencies, boards, hospitals, schools, and universities—from liability and from suit—unless the immunity has been waived. Similarly, sovereign immunity protects political subdivisions—including counties, cities, and school districts—from liability and from suit—unless the immunity has been waived.
Thus, sovereign immunity encompasses two principles: (1) immunity from suit and (2) immunity from liability. Immunity from suit bars a suit against the state or other governmental entity unless the Legislature expressly gives consent. Immunity from liability protects the state or other governmental entity from judgments even if the legislature has expressly given consent to sue.
Federal and state governments (generally the U.S. Congress and state legislatures) do have the ability to waive their sovereign immunity. Waivers of sovereign immunity are usually included in state and federal statutes and interpreted and applied by state and federal courts in court opinions.
A party may establish legislative consent by referencing a statute or a resolution granting express legislative permission. Legislative consent to sue the state or other governmental entity must be expressed in clear and unambiguous language.
Private schools do not have the protection of sovereign immunity and may be liable for personal injuries unless otherwise provided by a state’s statutes.