A school or school district can be sued. As parents, we put a lot of faith in schools to not only educate our children, but treat them fairly and with due care. It is extremely upsetting for parents to learn that their child has been hurt, mistreated, neglected, or harassed at school — especially when complaints go unaddressed or seem to fall on deaf ears. If your child has been harmed by the actions of a teacher, coach, or administrator, and your personal attempts at resolution have failed, it may be time to consult an experienced California education attorney to explore your legal options. Likewise, if you are a school employee who has been wrongfully terminated, or if you have any other legal issue relating to your employment, consulting an education lawyer may be necessary to ensure your rights are recognized and protected.
Can you sue a school?
Yes, you can sue a school, but understand that it is a complex process, and can be a bit of an uphill climb. This is largely because public schools (and certain private schools receiving government funding) enjoy legal immunity from certain types of lawsuits. The California Tort Claims Act lays out very specific rules and requirements for bringing a lawsuit against a public school, and they must be adhered to very closely, or judges will be quick to dismiss the case. This is why it is so important to consult an experienced education attorney as soon as possible after an incident of wrongdoing, because they can advise you on how best to phrase and frame your complaint, as well as when and how to do so.
Can you sue a public school?
Yes. Because of sovereign immunity laws, public schools are generally immune from legal liability for injuries caused by them or their employees, but this is not always true in practice, depending on the facts of your case. Before you can bring a lawsuit, you will need to go through the mandated complaint process with the school district itself. But you should always consult a lawyer before doing so, because in California, your formal written complaint to the school must include all possible legal theories you intend to argue later on in court, if you have to go there. If it’s not in the initial complaint, it won’t be legally admissible. Your complaint (or demand letter, if drafted by an attorney) must also include many specific content elements, and if any of these are missing, your claim may be rejected by default. If the school district accepts your claim, they may offer you monetary compensation and take disciplinary action against offending employees. However, most complaints are rejected, and it is at that point that you and your attorney can decide to proceed to court if he or she believes you have a winning case.
Can you sue a private or independent school?
Yes. If a private or independent school does not receive government funding, it does not enjoy the same types of legal protections as a public school, and the scope of liability for civil personal injury claims is much greater. And though private schools are subject to less government regulation and intervention, they still have a legal duty of care to provide a safe environment for students. Many lawsuits against private schools are filed for the same reasons as those filed against public schools, and there are fewer barriers to bringing litigation. Issues unique to private schools, such as admission and tuition disputes, may provide other causes of action.
Which attorneys sue school districts?
To sue a school district, you will want to find an attorney in your area who specializes in education law or child personal injury law. Be sure to select counsel with plenty of experience handling lawsuits against public institutions, as the law tends to side with the school district by default, and there are very specific and specialized procedures for filing these claims. Even the smallest substantive or procedural error in doing so can result in the dismissal of your case, so retain an attorney who has a proven track record of wins in government and education litigation.
Can a parent sue a school district?
Yes. Parents and guardians are the most common initiators of lawsuits against schools. Oftentimes, parents have tried everything in their power to resolve an ongoing issue, and proceeding to legal action becomes their last resort. Common reasons parents sue school districts are when their child has been neglected, bullied, assaulted, discriminated against, injured, or sexually harassed at school. Other causes of action may include failures to provide or implement an Individualized Education Plan, or make other accommodations for special needs students as required by law.
Can a student sue a school district?
A student may sue a school district if they are over 18, but as long as they are a minor, they generally cannot do so on their own. Federal and California state law effectively bars minors from filing lawsuits because they lack the capacity to enter into contracts, hire legal counsel, and sign court documents. While minor students can file an official complaint with the school district, any student under 18 wishing to actually sue the school or district will need to have a parent or legal guardian acting on their behalf.
Can you sue a school district for bullying?
Yes. If your child is being bullied at school, and teachers and administrators see it but do nothing to stop it, the school district may be legally liable. Likewise, if the bullying occurred as a result of something a teacher or administrator did or said to your child, the school district may be liable. In California, schools are required to have an anti-bullying policy, and to enforce it vigilantly and in defense of all students equally. At least 25% of U.S. students report having been bullied in school, with middle school being a particularly troublesome time — though, as sufferers can attest, bullying can happen any time from preschool and beyond. The advent of social media has unfortunately worsened the problem, and both schools and courts have begun to take a more active role in cracking down on bullying in recent years. Serious mental health problems and even suicides can result if bullying is allowed to continue unchecked, and schools may be held legally accountable if they failed to protect students from it.
Can you sue a school district for emotional distress?
Yes, if your case makes it into court, and you win, you may be awarded monetary damages for non-economic forms of harm such as emotional distress and pain and suffering, depending on the nature of the wrongdoing. Especially for incidents involving physical assault, sexual harassment or misconduct, and cruel and excessive punishment, the resulting psychological trauma can be crippling and long-lasting. Courts recognize this fact, and when applicable, may compensate a plaintiff accordingly for sustaining these types of intangible injuries.
How do I sue a school district?
First, you should consult an education lawyer and go over the facts of your case to determine your cause of action. The most common grounds for suing a school district are negligent supervision, discrimination, sexual misconduct or harassment, excessive punishment or child abuse, bullying, wrongful expulsion, injury due to a hazardous condition, failure to accommodate students with special needs and disabilities, and employment-related disputes.
In California, before you can sue a public school, you will first need to go through the school’s own administrative complaint process, and should do so under the guidance of an attorney. Most districts have a standard claim form you can use — click here for a link to the form for Los Angeles Unified School District. You will need to provide an estimate of the damages you are seeking if they are less than $10,000. After you file your complaint, the school district will review it and either accept it in part or in whole, reject it, ask for more information/amendments, or simply not respond at all, which is viewed by the courts as a rejection.
If the district rejects your claim or fails to offer a sufficient amount of compensation to settle the complaint, you and your lawyer may then decide to proceed with legal action. Once you have filed an actual lawsuit, you may be able to negotiate a higher settlement amount out of court via mediation, or you may need to take your case to trial in order to collect compensatory damages.
How long does it take to sue a school district?
Understand that suing a school district may take several years from the date of an incident to a final resolution in court. The time frame may be shorter if the school or district offers a reasonable settlement amount to resolve the issue swiftly and keep the case out of court. Note that in California, you must file an official complaint with the school within six months of when you discovered — or should have discovered — that some type of personal injury, wrongful death, or property damage occurred. After you file your claim, the school district has 45 days to respond. If your claim is accepted, the district may compensate you accordingly, but most claims are rejected or unanswered. After the school district rejects your claim, you have six months to file a lawsuit, or two years if your claim was never addressed.
How much does it cost to sue a school district?
How much it will cost to sue a school district is largely dependent on the quality and experience of counsel, as well as the way that fees are structured and how long it takes to resolve your case. Unfortunately, most education lawyers do not work on a contingency fee, where they only get paid if you win your case. There are some exceptions, but generally speaking, you will need to pay your lawyer upfront and throughout four hours billed pursuing your case.
It is also worth noting that many states have upper limits on the amount of damages that can be awarded to a plaintiff even if they win their case against a school, so make sure to discuss this with your lawyer when weighing the costs and benefits of taking legal action.
In an ideal scenario, the costs of lengthy litigation can be avoided by reaching a settlement agreement out of court, through negotiation. A well-written demand letter describing the offense in detail, the documented evidence of its occurrence, and the compensation due as a result is sometimes enough to convince a school district to pay out damages rather than proceed to trial.
What is the penalty for suing a school district?
Suing a school district is a civil action, so while individuals may be prosecuted for criminal offenses — such as a teacher engaging in sexual conduct with a minor — suing the school district itself will result in monetary compensation should you prevail. You may be awarded damages for economic loss sustained by the wrongdoing, such as medical bills, loss of income, or damage to personal property. You may also be awarded non-economic damages for pain and suffering, emotional distress, inconvenience, or loss of life and enjoyment.
Many, but not all, public school districts carry liability insurance for certain civil claims. Thus, if you sue a school district and win, some or all of the damages you are awarded may be paid by the district’s insurance company, with any remaining amount to be paid out of its own budget.
Suing an individual school usually only happens in the case of private schools, who may also have liability insurance to cover certain types of civil claims, with any remaining damages to be paid out of the school’s endowment.
School Teachers or Staff
School teachers and staff are generally immune from personal civil liability if their offending behavior occurred during the normal course of their job duties. That said, the school or district is also not liable if the teacher caused harm on their own time, so to speak, or if their actions were outside the scope and environment of their work activities. If a staff member’s actions were criminal, they may face prosecution and jail time, but it is unlikely a plaintiff will recover much in terms of monetary damages from the individual themselves, so civil lawsuits are usually directed at the school or district. In any case, if a teacher’s actions are found to be inappropriate, negligent, or abusive, they may face professional termination or reprimand for their role in a damaging event.
When should I contact an education attorney?
You should contact an education attorney if your child has suffered harm or wrongdoing because of the actions or inaction of school personnel. It is best to consult an education lawyer before you file an official complaint with the school, because what you write in your complaint will have an impact on the type of legal arguments you will later be able to make in court. It’s important not to delay in taking action and retaining counsel, because there are time limits on how long you have to file a complaint and proceed with a lawsuit.
Do I need an education attorney near me?
We recommend finding an education attorney familiar with the school districts in the county where the case is being tried. An education lawyer in the same county as the school district will generally be more familiar with the civil courts, versus an out of state attorney.
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