Education Law

Liability for School Science Experiment Accidents

"Pop, sizzle, BOOM!" Smoke appears and a bad smell reaches throughout the school. It's science class, one of the potentially most dangerous classes in a school.

For most students, the best part about science class is the chance to do experiments they'd never get to do at home. But what if one of those experiments goes wrong, and a student is injured? What are a parent's choices?

Georgia Science Experiment Accident

The Georgia Supreme Court is now deciding a case involving an eighth-grader who suffered severe eye injuries during a school science experiment. The teacher found an experiment on NASA's web site that taught about flight, air pressure and propulsion. Unfortunately, while demonstrating a rocket launch, a metal pin holding down a plastic bottle flew off and went directly into a student's eye.

None of the students in the class were wearing goggles at the time, even though 30 pairs of goggles were in the classroom. The injured student had four surgeries, and is still nearly blind in that eye. The student's parents filed suit, saying the teacher didn't follow the school district's requirement that students wear goggles during experiments.

The suit was filed against the school district, the teacher, the principal and the superintendent. So far, the superintendent and principal have been dismissed from the suit because the decision to do the experiment was within the teacher's discretion.

In this case, Georgia's laws will determine who can be sued for the injuries. Among the considerations for the Georgia Supreme Court is whether the teacher should have official immunity, meaning she wouldn't be sued for incidents during her work as a teacher.

Intentional or Reckless Conduct is Different

The Georgia accident is an example where something completely unexpected happened. In other cases, a school official may do something intentionally or recklessly which causes harm to a student. These can include cases of sexual misconduct with students, nearly always resulting in criminal charges brought against the official.

Reckless conduct occurs when an injury results from great carelessness or indifference when the official should have known that injury could occur. An example might be a driver's education teacher who tells the student driver and passengers they don't need to wear seat belts while in the driver's education car, and then a car accident causes them injury.

Strict Deadlines for Notice and for Filing Suit Apply

The decision to sue a school can be difficult. On one hand, you want your child to learn and experience new things, but you also want them to be safe. How do you know when to sue?

Talk to an attorney if you or your child has been injured in a school-related incident. State laws are very strict about deadlines for any lawsuits involving schools. It may take extra time for an attorney figure out who can be sued and under what deadlines. There also may be required notices to give the school before you file suit. Or even present the case before the school board.

Your attorney will consider several factors. These include if your student was violating school rules, whether the injury is connected to the actions of the school, teacher, or official, and whether the injury was serious enough for a suit to be worth your while.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • My child's face was cut by another student while playing a racquet sport in gym class. My out-of-pocket costs for the ER visit were hefty, I lost work time and my child may have a noticeable scar. Should I try to seek some sort of recovery from the school? Can I?
  • Can you explain "official immunity" to me, and does it apply if a teacher just fails to do something, like using safety equipment?
  • My child says she was burned by a chemical during science class, but the school never told me. Shouldn't parents be told about safety rules and materials used in lab science classes?
  • By enrolling my child in school, have I made any sort of waiver for school liability if she's hurt during school? What do school forms in our district say?
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