We hope that everyone has a stress-free transition back into the school year. But, sometimes, things go wrong at school, and this article will explore when liability can arise.
First up, personal injuries.
A school is a property like any other, which means that if you are hurt by dangerous conditions like disrepairs and poorly maintained facilities, you can sue for negligence. Schools can also be sued for failing to take remedial action with respect to bullying, and in the context of other instances of violence like fights between students or altercations with personnel.
An item to keep in mind if you are injured at a school is that most schools in New York enjoy a layer of protection provided by the Education Law’s notice of claim requirement. This means that, as a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit, you have to serve a notice of claim on the appropriate individual(s) within three months of the date of your accident. This applies to students as well as to other visitors to the property.
What if you are an employee of the school? Typically, employees in New York cannot sue their employers for negligence because of the Workers’ Compensation law. That means if you slip on a spill in the cafeteria that should have been cleaned up sooner, your remedy is in Workers’ Comp and not in a lawsuit. Employees who are injured at work can have recourse, however, if there is a third party responsible. So, if a contractor is doing work at the school and you are injured because of its negligence, you can have what’s called a third party claim against the contractor and still receive Workers’ Compensation. However, your recovery in a personal injury lawsuit will likely be reduced by what you have already received, i.e., the Workers’ Comp lien.
Next up, employment issues.
Public schools are subject to the same state and federal anti-discrimination laws as any other employer, as well as the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. This means that employees cannot be targeted because of their protected status (for example, sex, race, a disability, or age) or be retaliated against for making a complaint of discrimination or harassment based on their protected status. When it comes to state law claims, that notice of claim requirement still applies, so it’s important to keep an eye on applicable deadlines. Federal employment claims are not affected by the notice of claim requirement but may require filing a charge at the EEOC before moving forward with a lawsuit.
In public schools, employees also enjoy some, albeit limited, First Amendment protection when they speak on matters of public concern.
Often teachers and other school employees have protection through their union Collective Bargaining Agreement or under the Civil Service Law or Education Law, that may offer some job protection beyond what is available to many private employees. So, it is important for someone dealing with an employment related issue to be sure they understand all of their rights and options as they navigate a difficult work situation.
We certainly hope that the school year goes off without a hitch, but if not, be sure to keep in mind that schools enjoy some heightened protections in New York so it’s important to explore your options sooner rather than later.