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How to Sue a School in San Francisco for Injuries

If you are thinking of suing your child's school in San Francisco for injuries, be aware it can be a confusing and uphill battle. Public schools, as government institutions, enjoy special government immunity from certain kinds of liability. That means the school district can't be sued unless it agrees to the lawsuit (highly unlikely). San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is the seventh largest in the state, educating over 55,000 young people. Click here for a list of all schools within the district.

The Role of Lawyers in School Lawsuits

If your child is injured at school or during a school activity you may be able to recover financial damages from the school district to pay for your child's medical bills and other costs. There are many steps in this process. You may want to speak to an San Francisco education attorney or legal aid provider to get an idea of the path ahead both with the administration and, potentially, a court. An attorney can also address the specific facts in your situation, as each case carries different concerns and considerations. Read on to learn about the law in general and potential remedies.

Does it Matter If a Child's School Is Public or Private?

The process for suing a school district in California is very different for "public" and "private" schools. If a child attends a private school, parents generally have an easier time bringing a lawsuit. Why? Because private schools aren't protected by government immunity unless they receive federal funding.

Options for a lawsuit against a private school can include a suit for negligence, breach of contract issues, or simply filing a claim with the school's insurance policy. Claimants also have a longer time to file depending on the reason -- two to four years from the date of the injury. The California Department of Education has more information relating to private schools.

Commons Reasons Schools Get Sued

There are several grounds or bases for claims or lawsuits against a school in San Francisco. Negligence is the most common basis a parent can use if their child is physically injured at school. Some examples of actions that could also raise a claim are:

  • Bullying or acts of violence on schools grounds or during a school activity;
  • Unreasonable or excessive punishments by school officials against a child;
  • Sexual misconduct committed by a teacher or staff member; and
  • Discrimination against a student on the basis of race, sex, age, disability, or another "protected" category.

What are some examples of negligent conduct?

There are numerous ways a teacher, administrator, or school in general may be negligent. Here are some of the many:

  • Inadequate planning with regards to evacuations in case of emergencies;
  • Lack of supervision during lunch, recess, and in play areas;
  • Disregard of safety measures for school buses and nearby automobile traffic;
  • Deficiencies in food preparation and health/sanitation standards;
  • Failure to provide medication when required;
  • Unsafe structures or equipment (which officials knew about, but failed to repair);
  • In some circumstances, allowing strangers to enter school premises.

How Does the Process Start?

The specific rules for suing a public school are found in the California Tort Claims Act.

Generally speaking, a parent must file an administrative claim first with the school district before filing a private lawsuit. The district will conduct an investigation into the incident. A parent will only be allowed to file a lawsuit after the agency's process has been exhausted.

For SFUSD, a parent may want to contact their Risk Management Office at (415) 241-6307. They will provide the forms the parent needs to fill out. If filing a complaint based upon harassment, bullying, or unlawful discrimination, there is a online form (PDF) to be filled out. Most school districts have their own forms.

Here's the key information that must generally be included in a claim:

  • Family's name and address;
  • Date, place, and circumstances of the incident;
  • A description of the injury or damages;
  • The identity, if known of the public employee responsible;
  • Any steps taken to resolve the incident before filing the complaint.

Care must be taken when describing the incident and filling out a claim. A description must put the school district on notice of all possible theories of liability that the filer intends to pursue in a lawsuit. For this reason, some claimants write a very broad description so it may include not only known theories, but also any potential theories of liability. Sound tricky? It is, and the courts are very strict in enforcing this rule. If a claim doesn't describe a particular theory of liability, the courts will not allow it to be pursued.

A consultation with an attorney before submitting a complaint form may prove to be highly worthwhile for some. At any rate, claimants have only have six months from the date of the injury to file, so it is best not to procrastinate.

What Happens Once a Claim is Filed?

It's up to the school district if they want to "accept" or reject the claim. They must respond (allow or reject the claim in whole or in part) within 45 days. Schools boards generally reject most claims against them.

What if the School District Doesn't Respond to a Claim Within 45 Days?

The law sides with the school. If they don't respond at all, the claim is considered "rejected." This is the point when a claimant might consider filing a lawsuit.

Suing After a Claim is Rejected

If a claim with the district is rejected, the filer can proceed with a lawsuit. As we noted, the case must be filed within six months of the date of the rejection of the claim, or the law will bar (prohibit) the claim.

Before anyone sues a school district, public or private, they may wish to contact an attorney who specializes in education or government law for legal information that is specific to their case and to see if governmental immunity laws might apply.

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