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Teachers are responsible for children's education. But are they legally liable when a child is injured at school on their watch?
Well, it depends on where and how the injury occurred, the teacher's actions or inaction, and the evidence on the whole. Just like anyone else, teachers are only responsible for torts if all the elements of negligence are proven.
A tort is a wrong action that results in an injury to another person's body, property, or reputation. The word "tort" stems from the Latin word tortus, meaning twisted, crooked, or dubious. In that spirit, tort law is the body of rights, obligations, and remedies applied by courts in civil lawsuits to provide relief for wrongs caused by another.
Negligence is the legal theory used in torts cases. To show that negligence occurred, you have to prove four elements: duty, breach, causation, and damages. In order to prove a tort, or a wrong, all four elements of negligence must be shown. Failure to prove even one element is fatal to a personal injury lawsuit.
1. Duty -- A duty of care was owed the plaintiff by the defendant. As members of a society, we all owe each other a duty of care when acting in ways that may endanger another, such as driving. As such, in the school context where teachers are tasked with training students, it is difficult to argue that a teacher does not owe pupils a duty of care.
2. Breach -- The defendant breached the duty of care owed to the plaintiff by doing or not doing something that a reasonably prudent person would have done in the same or similar circumstances. If a reasonably prudent teacher would take certain measures to avoid child injury and the educator-defendant in a tort case failed to do as much, the breach element is proven.
3. Causation -- The defendant caused the injury directly or indirectly. A teacher may be the cause of child injury because of something the educator actually did, or through a failure to protect that a reasonably prudent person would have undertaken. But note that not everything that happens at school is in the hands of teachers and administrators. If a child is injured at school due to lightning striking twice on the jungle gym, the educator cannot be considered the direct or proximate cause of the act of nature. However, if a child is injured by another child, a teacher's actions or inactions may be considered the proximate, or indirect, cause of injury.
4. Damages -- The plaintiff must experience an actual compensable injury that can be remedied with damages. If there is no compensable harm to a child - no medical expenses, say - there may be no negligence claim. Injury alone is not enough.
If a plaintiff-student shows that a defendant-teacher owed a duty of care that was breached and resulted in compensable injury, then negligence is proven. But the teacher is just a starting point. Schools and districts may also be held responsible and whether or not you can target them will depend on whether the school is public or private.
Whoever is involved and in whatever context -- whether or not educational -- personal injury suits are complicated. Speak to an attorney who can guide you beyond the basics discussed here.