Most people assume that if their child is injured in a school bus accident, the school will automatically have to pay for all their expenses such as hospital bills, medications, follow-up appointments, physical therapy needs, or any other bills that might emerge. The reality is, governmental units (like school districts) actually don't have an obligation to pay for injuries because of something called sovereign immunity.
Sovereign immunity, retained by most state and local governments, is basically the right to be exempt from lawsuits. This legal doctrine goes back to ancient times, and centers on the idea that a king is sovereign and impervious to grievances from the people over which he reigns.
For many years, the law held that a school district could not be sued for personal injury cases like school bus accidents, ever. Luckily, the laws have now changed so that governmental units can be sued, but only under very limited conditions. Even though school districts are now able to be sued for something like a bus accident, the plaintiffs are still severely restricted by when they can sue and what they can sue for. In this article, we'll explain how it all works, how it's biased in favor of the school districts, and how a good lawyer can help you make the most of these concerns.
How does all of this work?
As stated earlier, the default position of the law is that state and local government both enjoy sovereign immunity, yet there are some special circumstances when it doesn't apply. Under these circumstances, it is said that sovereign immunity has been waived.
In a regular personal injury case in Texas you have to file suit against a wrongdoer wherein you allege a violation of written or common law. Typically, that means that you allege some type of negligent conduct. In order to win your case, you must prove all of the elements of your accusation.
For a governmental unit, you have the additional burdens of first establishing that your case falls outside the scope of the government's immunity. Here are all the things you must show the court in order to win:
- You have the burden of proving that the defendant is, in fact, a governmental unit. Texas courts have long since ruled that school districts are a type of governmental unit, so this part is little more than a formality.
- You must show that this governmental unit owed the injured party a duty not to hurt them. In a school bus accident, for example, the defendant owes a duty to students to keep them safe from harm while they are on the bus for school-related activities. But, to contrast, if an inmate escaped a jail and hurt you, you'd have a hard time proving that the state had a duty to keep you free from that type of harm.
- The duty that was owed to you was breached. If the employee of a school district (the bus driver) is careless and causes an accident, the duty (keeping the students safe while riding the bus) has been breached.
- You must show that the injuries were proximately caused by something that falls outside of immunity. Because accidents caused by motor vehicle operations are outside the scope of immunity, school bus accidents would qualify under this category. The plaintiff would have to prove that negligence of the bus driver was the proximate cause of their injuries.
- You must show that the defendant would be held personally liable if the same kind of accident happened outside of their job as a government employee. In a regular personal injury car accident case, a defendant would be held liable for negligent driving, so the same would apply to the driver of the school bus.
- You must show that there are no exceptions to the waiver of immunity. In other words, you have to show that your cause of action is the kind for which sovereign immunity was waived. Negligent acts of school districts are usually an exception to the waiver, meaning that school districts still get to enjoy sovereign immunity, except for cases involving motor vehicles. Therefore, even though a school district's misconduct is an exception to the waiver of immunity, because our case would be a school bus accident case, it would be an exception to the exception, and would reinstate the waiver.
- You must show that notice was provided as required by the TTCA. The Texas Torts Claim Act (the law that waives sovereign immunity in some instances) requires that claims brought against a governmental unit be given a formal notice within a rather short period of time that varies depending upon who you're suing. In a school bus accident case, you'd have to provide notice to the defendant of the damage or injury incurred, the time and place of the incident itself, name the school district as the defendant, and name the president of the school board or the superintendent as the agent in the case, and do so within the time window allowed.
Even though you have the ability to sue the school after meeting these elements, you're still severely limited to the amount that you're able to sue for. The limits of the TTCA damages include different categories for state, local, municipal, and emergency service organizations. So-called local governmental units are protected the most by law, being that they can be sued for the least amount. School districts are classified as local governmental units.
As you can see from that graphic, the most that an individual can receive in compensation from a school district under Texas law is $100,000, and the most that ALL combined victims in a single crash can receive is $300,000. You can see how timing (being the first to file) becomes necessary in these cases.
Examples of the school board's unfair advantage
Now that we've looked at the process of filing a claim against a local governmental unit, and the financial limits placed on cases against school boards, let's look at a couple of hypothetical school bus accident situations to see an example of how the process would work.
- In the first scenario, a bus of twenty-four kids heading to a Dallas middle school flips because the bus driver failed to maintain speed on a curve. No one was killed, but ten of the kids have broken bones and other minor injuries. As the mother of one of the children, you first take all the necessary steps to file. Once you have done that, you see that the limitations are set at 100,000 dollars per person -- hypothetically, that may be enough to cover your kid's medical costs in this case -- but then there's also a cap of $300,000 dollars per incident. Well, if all of the ten kids with injuries have claims, and each of their medical bills are worth around $100,000, those kids are actually only getting $30,000 dollars of the $100,000 they deserve if everyone splits it evenly, but will they? Surely, some people will be wise enough to lawyer up and others will wait, meaning that someone will lose out on compensation. Many families would be unable to meet the financial strains of an their medical bills.
- In the second scenario, a bus of eight students heading out for a field trip to the capitol in Austin loses control, veers off the side of the road, and crashes into a tree. In this scenario, two children die, two are seriously injured, and two more suffer non-life threatening injuries. Since the limitations are set at $300,000 per incident, this amount has to be split between all six children and their families. Considering that in most cases, the wrongful death of a one child would be worth more than $300,000 in the eyes of a jury, this amount for the death of two children leaves these families -- already dealing with an unspeakably tragic situation -- with financial strain as well. In addition, the families of the two children who died would probably receive the majority of that $300,000, leaving the families of the four injured children with a serious financial burden.
Though no one wants to think about the possibility of their child getting injured or killed on a school bus or any other vehicle, the cold reality is that if your child does get hurt, you're going to need money to help them get well. This is the reason that lawsuits exist in the first place. Government immunity laws severely restrict the right to sue, and the real tragedy is that families of injured children are left much worse off than they were before the accident occurred.
How a lawyer can help
On one hand, it's easy to say that a lawyer's help is necessary just because of all of the red tape associated with filing a claim against the government. On the other hand, it's easy to justify a lawyer's involvement simply because these accidents usually produce major injuries and losses, yet there is so little compensation that can be awarded under Texas law, so you'll need a lawyer to fight aggressively for your child. But, there's another reason that a lawyer's assistance may prove to be invaluable in one of these cases, and that is our ability to consider all potential angles in a case, and to flesh out other potential sources of compensation.
For instance, imagine that your child is injured in a bus accident wherein they sustain a broken arm requiring surgery. This is a case that is theoretically worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in the eyes of most jurors. Well, there are not hundreds of thousands of dollars to go around from the school bus's insurance alone.
But what about other cars? Did the accident happen because the bus driver alone made a mistake, or did someone cut him off? If so, that person will likely have insurance and be liable as well. If the bus driver is solely at fault, do they have insurance on their own vehicle? Probably so, and unless it has an occupational exemption, it'll likely be up for grabs. Further, was there anything wrong with the bus? If it suffered from a defect or poor maintenance, then that may indicate that other entities bear responsibility in the accident. What about your family's own vehicle? If you have UIM coverage, chances are that it will cover your child in this wreck too.
You get the idea. I'm not talking about going on a witch hunt and suing people who did nothing wrong but were merely tangentially related to the bus. But what I am proposed is digging deep and making sure that anyone who did actually cause the accident is held accountable, and/or any insurance policy that covers the act (either by way of contractual obligation or through negligence of the insured) is not allowed to go unnoticed.
Just to give you a quick example of how the above scenario can play out, our firm was recently hired by the family of a woman who was killed in a truck accident that involved close to a dozen people. The way the accident happened was that a drunk woman lost control of her vehicle and crashed, causing her car to stall in the middle of the interstate. Numerous people stopped to render aid. Minutes later, a truck driver who was on his phone and not paying attention barreled through the crowd of people, killing and injuring numerous bystanders.
In that case, our firm was one of several who sued the trucking company. However, we were literally the only firm who thought to file a claim against the woman whose negligence set the whole thing in motion. You see, in Texas, when multiple parties contribute to an accident in their own way, the laws says that all of them can be sued. For some reason, we were the only firm who had the foresight to do so, and our client ended up receiving some badly needed compensation which she used to pay for her daughter's funeral while the case against the truck driver was being litigated.
Again, lawyers are necessary in these cases because these are complex legal matters, not for the faint of heart. But, of greater concern, a good lawyer is like a bloodhound, and I can't tell you in how many cases I've been able to find more than people originally expected to be available.
Now, you may think that it's crass to talk about money in relation to accidents involving injured children, and I'll somewhat agree. Only, I'd add that it's far worse to avoid the conversation and leave the families of injured children holding the bag for their child's medical bills simply because no one bothered to explain how school bus accident cases really work.