Filing a Lawsuit Against a Teacher or School District in California

To file a lawsuit against a school district requires the filing of a notice of complaint under the California Tort Claims Act. The act sets forth specific requirements which must be strictly followed, otherwise, the lawsuit may be dismissed.

Filing a lawsuit against a school district is not easy. Districts enjoy immunity from certain types of lawsuits, but depending on the facts of your case you can still file suit to obtain financial compensation. These can cover your child's:

Navigating the complex legal process of suing a district or a teacher is difficult but not impossible with the help of an experienced personal injury attorney at the Shouse Law Group. You do not have to face it all alone.

Below, our California personal injury attorneys address frequently asked questions about lawsuits filed against teachers and school districts for the injuries your child may have suffered:

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Students may be injured because of school district negligence, or even improper conduct by one of the student's teachers.

1. What injuries can I sue a school district or teacher for?

While these institutions do enjoy immunity from lawsuits (discussed more below), they are not immune from all types of litigation. Certain types of injuries or conduct which occurs within the grounds will allow the filing of a lawsuit under certain circumstances. The following section describes some of the more common situations which arise, but anytime a school causes harm to your child you may be able to file a personal injury lawsuit.

1.1 Can I sue the school district for bullying?

Nearly 25% of all children in the United States say that they have been bullied while attempting to get an education. 1 While statistically, most bullying occurs in middle school, as many people are aware from personal experience bullying can take place from the very first day, until graduation, and beyond.

Schools are required to have anti-bullying policies which are intended to protect students. It could be liable for bullying if:

  • The district failed to adequately protect all students against bullying;
  • When personnel see bullying and fail to act to prevent or stop it; or
  • The bullying occurred as a result of a teacher's, coach's, or other personnel's comments or action.

Bullying can range from minor to extremely serious. Students have even committed suicide as a result of extreme bullying. 2

1.2 Can I file a lawsuit because of excessive punishments from teachers?

If a teacher or a coach excessively punishes a student for alleged misbehavior, the school district and that teacher or coach may be liable. There is no question that districts, teachers, and coaches have the right and the obligation to impose discipline and punish wrongdoing.

However, when they go too far, students can be harmed both physically and emotionally. Extreme punishments are not appropriate, and depending on the unique facts of a case the school district may be held liable under California law.

1.3 Can I file a lawsuit for discrimination against my child?

By law, California school districts may not discriminate against students on the basis of:

  • Gender or gender identity,
  • Sexual orientation,
  • Ethnic group identification,
  • Ancestry,
  • Religion,
  • Color,
  • Mental or Physical disability, or
  • Race.3

Not only may it not discriminate, but it is required to implement policies and procedures which prevent this kind of discrimination. While not every instance of discrimination can be stopped, if a school district fails to implement the kinds of policies which would reduce or prevent discrimination it may be liable in a lawsuit for damages.

1.4 Can I sue a California school district for sexual harassment or misconduct by a teacher or staff member?

No parent ever wants to hear that their child has been sexually harassed of by a teacher, coach, or other staff member. This situation is a nightmare for the student who must suffer it, and for the parents who must protect their child.

School districts also have a responsibility to protect students from sexual misconduct, and failure to properly protect students can justify a lawsuit for money damages. While institutions generally are not liable for the intentional wrongful acts of teachers, they may be liable for negligent hiring, supervision or retention. The school can be directly liable if it negligently did any of the following with regard to the employee:

  • Hired,
  • Retained,
  • Trained, or
  • Supervised.

For further discussion, please see our article on Title 9 lawsuits for sexual assault on campus

1.5 What is negligent conduct?

Schools may also be sued as a result of the negligent conduct of its teachers or other staff. Negligence is a failure to use the care a reasonable person would use while doing something that he or she has a duty to do. In other words, districts have a duty to keep their students safe, and when their actions are unreasonable and lead to injury, the district can be held liable.

Some common examples of negligent conduct by teachers, coaches, or districts include:

  • Failure to prepare food in a safe and sanitary manner,
  • Failure to adequately maintain buses or other transportation,
  • Failure to provide proper medication (when required),
  • Inadequate emergency planning (i.e. fire escape plans, tornado plans, earthquake plans),
  • Failure to repair unsafe structures, equipment, or grounds,
  • Lack of supervision during, recess, lunch, or during extracurricular activities, and
  • Sports injuries at school due to lack of supervision and safety measures.
Example: Sally Anne was injured as a result of a broken staircase while heading to third period in her high school. She, her parents, and their attorney can file a claim under the California Tort Claims Act to begin the process of their lawsuit against the school district for her injuries.

With the help of an experienced California personal injury attorney, you can know whether the facts of your case allow you to file a lawsuit under California's complex laws regarding suing a school district.

2. When can I file a lawsuit against a school district?

The rules a person must follow for suing a public school are outlined in the California Tort Claims Act. The act sets forth specific guidelines that a person must abide by for his or her claim to be successful. Failure to follow the specific rules laid out by the act may result in dismissal of a case, even if the plaintiff is entitled to financial compensation.

The law states that, generally, "a public entity is not liable for an injury" caused by that public entity or any of its employees. This is known as "sovereign immunity." Understanding how sovereign immunity applies to a case is essential for filing a claim against a school district or teacher.

2.1 What is sovereign immunity?

Sovereign immunity means that certain public entities, including public school districts, are immune from lawsuits for injuries caused by them or their employees. 4 The concept originates from England, and has been around for centuries. Every state in the country now has a sovereign immunity law of some variation.

In most states, the sovereign immunity statutes carve out specific exceptions to the law by which a plaintiff can still sue the government or another public entity. These exceptions are usually governed by a strict procedure which must be followed. In California, that strict procedure is the California Tort Claims Act.

2.2 Can I file a lawsuit against a private school and is the process different?

Parents and students who have been injured by a private school or its employees have the right to file a personal injury lawsuit against it. The process is very different, as a private school may not be entitled to sovereign immunity. Some are, especially if they receive certain state or federal funding.

Knowing which process to follow when filing a lawsuit is the job of your skilled California attorney.

3. How do I file my lawsuit against a California school district?

Before you file an actual lawsuit against the school district, you must strictly follow the requirements of the California Torts Claims Act.

3.1 How do I file my "claim" against the school district?

Before filing a lawsuit, an injured student or their parent must file a notice of your claim against the school district. 5 A "claim" can be presented by filing a report or sending a letter if either of those contains all of the necessary requirements. Instead, many school districts have forms that individuals can fill out to provide notice of their claim.

However, you should not file your claim alone. There are strict time requirements which must be met, as well as content requirements.

3.2 What information does my claim have to include?

The student or parent who wishes to file a lawsuit against the school district must file a claim which includes the following information:

  • The name and postal office address of the claimant.
  • The post office address to which the person presenting the claim desires notices to be sent.
  • The date, place and other circumstances of the occurrence or transaction which gave rise to the claim asserted.
  • A general description of the indebtedness, obligation, injury, damage or loss incurred so far as it may be known at the time of presentation of the claim.
  • The name or names of the public employee or employees causing the injury, damage, or loss, if known.
  • The amount claimed if it totals less than ten thousand dollars ($10,000) as of the date of presentation of the claim, including the estimated amount of any prospective injury, damage, or loss, insofar as it may be known at the time of the presentation of the claim, together with the basis of computation of the amount claimed. If the amount claimed exceeds ten thousand dollars ($10,000), no dollar amount shall be included in the claim. However, it shall indicate whether the claim would be a limited civil case. 6

Failure to include all of the necessary information can cause the claim to be dismissed. If a proper claim is not filed within the time period set forth by law, the claim may be denied.

3.3 Do I have to hire an attorney to file my claim?

You are not required to hire an attorney to file your claim. But because of the strict way California courts can limit your case, you should proceed by way of counsel. Your description of your claim is required to put the school district on notice of all possible legal theories you intend to argue in the lawsuit.

Courts are very strict in enforcing this rule, and unless you have years of experience filing these kinds of lawsuits you may accidentally fail to include a piece of information you need to successfully file your lawsuit. With the help of an attorney at the Shouse Law Group, you can make sure that you do not miss any potential claims and the financial compensation you deserve.

4. When do I have to file my claim?

The California Tort Claims Act sets forth very specific guidelines for filing claims. Generally, a person who wishes to file a claim against a school district must file a claim within 6 months for claims which are for:

The time limit may be extended in certain limited circumstances. The six-month period may not begin to run until the plaintiff first discovers (or should have discovered) the injury.

However, do not wait to file a claim or contact a California personal injury lawyer. If the deadline passes without a filed claim, the case may be dismissed.

5. What happens after I file my claim?

Once a proper claim is filed with the school district, it is up to the school district if they wish to accept or reject the claim. The school district then generally has 45 days in which to respond to a claim. It can:

  1. Fail to respond to the claim, in which case it is deemed rejected;
  2. Approve the claim, in whole or in part. The school district may offer a settlement of the case at this point;
  3. The school district may reject the claim;
  4. The school district may ask for more information and allow for an amendment of the claim; or
  5. The school district may reject the claim if it is untimely.

School districts typically deny all claims, whether by answering with a denial or allowing the 45 day period to lapse. Talk to your lawyer about the timeline for filing a claim and what you can expect.

6. What do I do if my claim is rejected?

The school district will likely deny any claim against it. So never be surprised if that is the case. At this point, the parent and student can proceed with the filing of a lawsuit.

Any lawsuit must be filed within 6 months of the date of the rejection of the claim, or 2 years if the school district failed to respond to the notice of claim. Failure to file a lawsuit within that time will bar any potential claims.

7. What kinds of damages may I recover from my lawsuit?

In California, you can receive what is called compensatory damages which compensate you for your injuries. Compensatory damages for an injury or accident fall into two basic categories.

7.1 Economic damages in a personal injury case

Economic damages are those which can be easily identified by a monetary value, and are intended to cover a plaintiff's "out-of-pocket" expenses such as:

7.2 Non-economic damages in a personal injury case

Non-economic damages are less easily identified with a monetary value or necessarily involve out-of-pocket expenses. They include more subjective losses such as:

  • Pain and suffering,
  • Emotional distress,
  • Physical impairment (such as loss of the use of a limb or organ),
  • Disfigurement,
  • Inconvenience, and
  • Loss of life and enjoyment.
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Call us for help...

For questions about filing a lawsuit against a school district or to confidentially discuss your case with one of our skilled California personal injury attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at the Shouse Law Group. For cases in Nevada, please see our article on lawsuits against school districts in Las Vegas Nevada.

We have local law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.

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