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Who Is Liable for a School Field Trip Injury?

By Melanie Rauch, JD | Last updated on

Field trips are a common way for schools to take the educational experience out of the classroom or to celebrate the end of the school year.

If your kids have rushed home with a pen and paper in their hands asking for your signature on the permission slip, you know that off-campus trips come with a certain amont of liability that you’re asked to cede. Whether your kid is being taken to a zoo, a museum, or a nature park, there’s always a least a little bit of risk associated with the excursion — even if just on the bus trip. While these trips can be educational and fun, these jaunts away from school are opportunities for field trip injuries.

Just last summer, for example, 16 children were sent to the hospital after falling off an 18-foot structure at Fort Gibraltar in Manitoba. Last fall, a high school student was injured after a 30-foot fall during a field trip to a state forest in Pennsylvania. And last December, a school bus returning students to a Sacramento school after a field trip caught fire.

While these types of occurrences might seem like freak accidents, they do happen. What if the injured student is your own kid? These incidents can lead to legal liability for the school district or school employee, and you may have more legal rights than you think.

Who Can I Sue?

Both schools and the business can be held responsible for your child's injuries.

First, you should know that businesses that run an operation open to the public can be held liable for injuries that occur on their property. Businesses have a duty to keep their premises safe for the public. This can include maintaining equipment, installing safety devices, and putting up warning signs. So,, if an amusement park ride malfunctions and your child is injured, the park's operators could be held responsible.

Along with the business, parents may sue the school for their child's injuries. After all, your child is supposed to be supervised by school personnel during these field trips. If your child is injured due to neglect or poor supervision, you could have a personal injury claim against the school.

Duty of Care and Negligence

The liability for a student getting injured on a school field trip can depend on various factors and is often a complex legal matter. Generally, the school may have a duty to ensure the safety and reasonable care of its students. This duty of care means that the school must take reasonable steps to prevent foreseeable harm to the students while they are under the school's supervision, which includes field trips. However, school liability can be affected by the circumstances of the injury.

The legal concept of negligence plays a big role in determining who can legally be held responsible for the child’s injuries. If the injury was caused by the school's negligence, such as inadequate supervision or failure to follow safety protocols, the school could be held liable.

Third Parties

If the injury was caused by the actions of a third party (someone not directly employed by the school, such as someone from another company), that party might be liable. For example, if a bus company is contracted to transport students and an injury occurs due to the bus driver's negligence, the bus company might be held responsible.

What about parent chaperones? In theory, it might be possible to sue a parent or chaperone liable for a student's injuries during a school field trip, but it's complex and not very common. The lawsuit would hinge on proving the chaperone neglected their duty to supervise the child reasonably.

This requires showing they failed to act as a responsible adult in a similar situation. Courts generally apply a relaxed standard for volunteer chaperones compared to professional caregivers. Accidental bumps and unforeseeable mishaps are unlikely to meet the bar for negligence. Schools have a higher duty of care for students and are more likely to be the target of lawsuits in field trip injury cases.

Governmental Immunity

Public schools, being part of government entities, may have certain protections under governmental immunity laws, which can limit or prevent liability in some cases. It's important to note that the laws governing liability can vary significantly from one jurisdiction to another, and factors such as the specific details of the incident, local laws, and the terms of any relevant insurance policies can all influence who is held liable.

Schools Are Legally Savvy

Don’t underestimate how savvy schools are. They’ve been in the liability game for a long time, and many schools and school districts have lawyers either on staff or on retainer. These lawyers are responsible for providing legal advice on a wide range of issues that schools may face — including litigation when a child gets injured on their watch.

One of the ways that a school’s legal counsel tries to protect them is by drafting liability waivers for certain occasions that might bring more risk, so you should be aware of the effect of these. In most cases, if your child goes on a school field trip, the school will require the parent to sign a release form of some sort. Keep in mind that even written disclaimers like these are not always enforceable, and the fact that you sign a piece of paper doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t still sue your child’s school for a field trip injury. Particularly if there has been “gross negligence” by the school, you could still take them to court even if the waiver says otherwise.

We have a separate article about what rights you sign away when you sign a field trip permission slip, so check that out if you are concerned about filing a personal injury claim for student injuries after having signed a waiver.

Talk to an Attorney

Because schools have their own attorneys, you should consider getting your own legal professional if your child is injured on a school trip. Browse our database of personal injury lawyers to find an expert near you who can give you a free consultation about your case.

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