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How To Sue a School in Orange County for Injuries

If you are thinking of suing your child's public school in Orange County for injuries, be aware that 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). Also, keep in mind there are numerous school districts throughout the Orange County that have their own grievance procedures. Here's a list.

Where to Start

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. It could be a good idea to speak with an Orange County attorney or legal aid provider along the way. Read on to learn some general information about the law and what remedies may be available to you.

Does it Matter if My 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 your child attends a private school you may have an easier time bringing a lawsuit. Why? Because private schools aren't protected by government immunity unless they receive federal funding.

Your options for a lawsuit against a private school s may include a suit for negligence, breach of contract claims, or simply filing a claim with the school's insurance policy. You likely also have a longer time to file, depending on the basis for suit -- two to four years from the date of the injury.

Common Reasons for a Lawsuit Against a Public School

There are several reasons you may want to file a claim or lawsuit against a school district in Orange County. Negligence is the most common basis a parent can use if their child is physically injured at school. However, there are other types of actions may raise the possibility of a lawsuit. Examples include:

  • Unaddressed bullying or violence on schools grounds (or during school activities);
  • Excessive or unreasonable punishments by school officials against your child;
  • Sexual misconduct committed by a teacher or staff member;
  • Discrimination against a student on the basis of race, sex, age, disability, or another legally "protected" category.

What Are Some Examples of Negligent Conduct?

There's a whole bunch of ways a teacher or administrator can be negligent. Here are a few examples, but there are plenty more:

  • Inadequate planning with regards to evacuations in case of emergencies;
  • Lack of child 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 Do I Start the Process?

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

Generally speaking, a parent must file a claim first with an administrative agency (such as the school district) before filing a private lawsuit. The agency may conduct an investigation into the incident. A parent will only be allowed to file a lawsuit after the agency's remedies have been proven to be inadequate, i.e. they reject the claim.

For instance, in Orange a parent would contact the Orange County Unified School District. Here's a link to the claim form (PDF). Most schools have their own forms.

Generally, you have to include the following information about your claim:

  • Your 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;
  • The amount of the claim.

Complainants should be careful when describing how an injury happened. A description must put the government on notice of all possible theories of liability that the filer intends to pursue in a lawsuit. 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. As a result, if you are considering a claim, you may want to consult an attorney before writing and/or submitting your form.

However, that being said, you'll only have six months from the date of the injury to file, so don't procrastinate.

What Happens Once I File My Claim?

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 My Claim Within 45 Days?

The law sides with the school. If they don't respond at all, the claim is considered "rejected." The next step to pursue a claim would be to file a lawsuit.

Suing After Your Claim is Rejected

So, your claim against your public school was rejected. No surprise there. You can now proceed with a lawsuit. Just a reminder as noted above, your case must be filed with six months of the date of the rejection of the claim, or the law will bar your claim.

Before you sue or bring a claim against a school (public or private), consider contacting an attorney who specializes in education or government law to see if governmental immunity laws apply to your school district and to advise you based on your specific circumstances.

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