While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has concluded that school buses are the safest way to transport children to and from school, accidents do of course happen, triggering a number of questions: Who is liable for the accident: the bus driver, the private company that employs the driver, the school/district, someone else? Can you file a personal injury lawsuit against a public school district? Read on to learn more.
Types of School Bus Accidents
Most people will hear the term "school bus accident" and think of a typical motor vehicle accident, resulting from negligence on the part of one or more drivers. That's certainly one variety.
But seen in a larger light, a "school bus accident” can also include:
- falls while entering or exiting the bus
- trips and falls onboard the bus, perhaps due to a dangerous condition (i.e. a defect in the flooring), and
- a pedestrian or bicyclist struck by a school bus, and
Since school bus accidents can take so many forms, it makes sense to discuss potential liability according to the different parties that typically might bear blame for the accident: namely, public schools and private entities.
School/District Liability and the "Notice of Claim" Process
After a school bus accident in which a child is injured, making a claim against the school itself (or the school district) is usually the first kind of legal action considered by parents.
Since most schools are part of a district or larger public education system run by a municipal (city, county, township) or state government, the school or district likely benefits from certain legal protections (known as sovereign immunity) available to government entities. That doesn't mean you can't file a lawsuit against the school or district, it just means that, if you think the school/district (and or one of its employees) was negligent in some way with respect to the operation of the school bus, you'll likely need to comply with a strict administrative claim process at the outset.
These procedures vary from state to state, and municipality to municipality. But typically, you will first have to file a Notice of Claim with the proper government agency or entity. This could be the school district itself, or the county, or the state, etc. This document alerts the district/government that you have suffered some kind of loss (personal injury and/or property damage) and you intent to hold the district/government accountable via a claim for monetary compensation.
You typically must file this Notice of Claim within a relatively short time after the incident giving rise to the claim. The notice usually must describe the underlying accident, the nature of the government's role in causing it, and the specific amount of compensation you're asking for. For example, if your child was injured in an accident involving a school bus in New York City, and you want to file an injury claim against the public school district, you must file a Notice of Claim within 90 days of the accident. Learn more about Filing a Notice of Claim against the government in New York (from NYCourts.gov).
Once the Notice of Claim is filed, the government is entitled to a certain amount of time in which it must decide whether to take any action related to the claim (pay it, deny it) or do nothing. Usually, once that time period passes (in New York, it's 30 days) and the claim is denied or no action is taken, the claimant can proceed to filing a lawsuit in court. In this way (and in the context of a school bus accident case) the Notice of Claim serves as a sort of prerequisite to filing a personal injury lawsuit in civil court. Failure to file a timely and proper Notice of Claim first will likely lead to a dismissal of any lawsuit you try to file over the school bus accident, so it's crucial to understand and comply with the Notice of Claim process.
Private Schools, Companies and Driver Liability
If the school bus accident was caused by the negligence of a private school and/or one of its employees (i.e. the driver), or was the fault of a driver who is employed by a private company (as opposed to a public school district), you probably won't have to worry about the Notice of Claim process. You can likely make an injury claim against the private school or company directly, either by filing a personal injury lawsuit or a third-party insurance claim against the insurance carrier that insures the school/company's vehicles and drivers in the event of a school bus accident.
This article provides a snapshot of some of the liability issues that can arise when a child is injured in an accident involving a school bus. It's not an exhaustive discussion, of course. For example, a school bus accident can also be caused or compounded by defective equipment or a mechanical issue that renders the bus unsafe. A case like that involves a whole slew of separate legal issues.
Especially when you're considering making an injury claim against a public school district or other government entity, it's important to understand everything from common law legal principles to local government regulations as they apply to your potential case. In other words, it may be time to discuss your situation with an experienced injury attorney in your area. Learn more about working with a personal injury lawyer.