School-Dazed: School-Related Injuries
Labor Day is soon upon us, which means that schools will be opening their doors and welcoming students back in for another school year. Unless you’re a teacher at your child’s school, for most of us this means that our child will be out of our sight for most of the day, and therefore, out of our immediate protection.
Unfortunately, lawsuits concerning students injured at school are not as uncommon as most might initially think. In fact, there are several common causes of both physical and emotional injury to students in the school environment: 1) Negligence on the part of teachers, nurses, athletic coaches, or other school personnel; 2) School bus accidents; and 3) Bullying and fights between students.
Negligence on the Part of School Personnel
Part of the reason I chose to write about this topic, beside the fact that it is timely (it being September), is because our own law clerk, Joe Cannizzo, was injured when he was a student in middle school due to the negligence of school personnel, and he has given the firm permission to share his story with you now.
Specifically, Joe was injured in gym class when he was in the 6th grade. The gymnasium of the school (Winslow Twp. Middle School) was comprised of a large primary gymnasium and several small auxiliary rooms that were connected to it – one of which housed the gym room. The gym room itself was comprised of several universal weight machines, a set of free weights, a heavy bag, and two ping pong tables.
Throughout the school year, there had been occasions when students were allowed to choose what activity they wanted to do for gym class – basketball, jump rope, track, or ping pong to name a few. On this particular day, Joe – who was maybe 11 or 12 at the time – decided to play ping pong in the weight room, as did a small handful of other students. Some of the students who decided to use the weight room also chose to do so to make use of the weights.
The gym coach, seated in a rolling desk chair, positioned himself in the threshold of the doorway between the weight room and the gymnasium, with his back towards the students in weight room as he appeared to be primarily concerned with watching the students in the gymnasium who were playing basketball. Additionally, the gym coach had turned a radio on in the weight room and had the volume turned up very high. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the students in the weight room who were making use of the weights were given no instructions on how to use them properly, nor were they given any safety instructions or taught weight-training techniques.
Subsequently, after Joe had played a game or two of ping pong, he decided to try to use one of the universal weight machines. Several of the students using the leg press had started a contest to see who could leg press more weight successfully. Eventually, Joe attempted to lift more weight than was safe for someone his size, and he suddenly felt a pop and a burning sensation in his back. Later medical diagnostics revealed that Joe had a T11-T12 disc herniation with impingement on the thecal nerve sac in his spine.
Similarly, a lawsuit has recently been filed in New Jersey seeking $10 million dollars in damages by the family of a 7-year-old student in the New Milford School District in Bergen County, who was tragically killed by a folding lunch table that was not secured properly and fell on him during an indoor soccer practice, causing fatal injury.
School Bus Accidents
Sadly, school bus accidents are among the most common causes for school-related injuries. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that from 2003 to 2012, more than 1,200 school bus crashes occurred, resulting in the death of an average of 135 children each year. This number does not even account for the large number of children who sustain injury in falls on school buses or who are injured by attempting to board or exit the bus.
In May of this year, there was a fatal school bus crash in Morris County that took the lives of a young student and a Paramus teacher during a field trip to Waterloo Village. The bus collided with a dump truck, tearing the body of the bus from the chassis, and killing the 10-year-old school girl and her teacher.
The attorney representing the family, David Fried, said in a statement, “We will be looking for all sorts of issues, like whether there were seatbelts, whether they were properly being used,” and that he would be looking under, “every rock and every stone in an attempt to find out what happened.”
Violence or Bullying between Students
Violent acts by students accounted for 749,200 nonfatal injuries among 12 to 18-year-olds in the U.S. in 2012, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The following year, a national survey showed that 8% of students reported being in a fight and 7% reported being threatened or injured. Additionally, 5% admitted to carrying a weapon within the last 30 days, and an alarming 20% reported being bullied.
The most common injuries, according to the study, were contusions, broken bones, head trauma, and (most frightening) gunshot wounds. Anxiety, depression, and disabling phobias were among other injuries caused by school violence and bullying.
Recently, a lawsuit was filed against Winslow Township Middle School seeking damages after a student claims to have been dragged by her hair across a classroom by her classmate; just part of a nearly 1 ½ -long pattern of harassment, abuse, and bullying that the school’s administrators have repeatedly ignored.
Taking the School to Task – Suing the School
The legal issues involved with suing a school is largely predicated upon whether the school is a private school or a public school. A private school, in certain circumstances, may have certain protections under the Charitable Immunity Act.
A public school, on the other hand, as a public governmental entity, is protected by the New Jersey Tort Claims Act. The Tort Claims Act has certain notice requirements which a plaintiff must comply with or run the risk of their claim being barred. Additionally, the Act imposes a higher negligence standard than the one imposed in standard personal injury cases against private actors.
These are two of the biggest reasons why it is critical, if your child has been injured at school or in a school-related activity, such as on a field trip, on a school’s sports team, or on a school bus, that you seek the advice of an attorney right away, as the notice requirements of the Tort Claims Act require action within 90 days of the injury.
If your child has been involved in a school-related injury, please give the Law Offices of Drinkwater & Goldstein, LLP a call today at (856) 753-5131. We have handled these kinds of cases numerous times and are very familiar with what the Tort Claims Act requires. We will fight to get your child the recovery he or she deserves!