If you have a legal grievance against a school, a lawsuit may be an option. Although the process for filing a civil lawsuit is similar across jurisdictions, state law may grant some immunity to public school systems. Before you undertake any civil action against a school, research the law or engage an experienced attorney for guidance.
Immunity and Deadlines
State law may bar lawsuits against public school systems except under specific circumstances. In Texas, for example, all state agencies enjoy immunity from lawsuits with some exceptions: operation of a motor vehicle by an employee; property defects; and injuries arising out of the conditions or use of property. A state law on immunity will apply uniformly to all school districts within the state. A private educational institution, at any level, is not protected by this principle of "sovereign" or "governmental" immunity.
Many states, such as Florida, require pre-suit notification if you are considering a lawsuit against a public agency, including a school district. This entails preparing a "Notice of Intent to Sue" or similar filing in which you as the plaintiff disclose your intent to file a lawsuit. In Florida, the notice must be filed with the Department of Financial Services within three years of the date the claim arises. You may also be required to provide basic information about the claim: the type of claim it is, for example, date of the incident that gave rise to the complaint and amount of damages you'll be seeking. State law may limit judgment amounts. Florida, for example, limits judgments against public agencies to $200,000 for each claimant and $300,000 total for each claim.
Complaints and Summonses
A civil lawsuit begins with a complaint being filed in a court with jurisdiction over the case. The complaint must name the proper defendant; for a public school, this may be the school district which operates the school, or a parent organization such as a church that owns a private school. The complaint states in detail legal grounds, including the specific acts or occurrences which gave rise to your complaint; you must also name any laws which you claim the school or its agents violated. Finally, any civil suit must claim damages—financial, professional, physical or psychological losses—that you can trace specifically to the wrongful actions of the defendant. Along with the complaint, you must prepare a summons for service on the agent of the school or school board who is authorized to accept service. The summons notifies the defendant of the suit and gives a deadline for filing of an answer.
Mediation and Discovery
State law may require mediation or arbitration of any disputes with public agencies before a case can proceed through the court system. Dispute resolution does not necessarily bar a trial or hearing. As a plaintiff, however, you may be required to exhaust any and all such administrative remedies before proceeding to a lawsuit. If the mediation process does not resolve or settle the issue, you would gather evidence during the discovery period—which begins after the lawsuit is filed and answered—to be presented at trial; this may include witness statements, documents, deposition testimony, affidavits, videos, e-mails, medical reports and any other material that supports a claim of wrongdoing against the school.
Founder/president of the innovative reference publisher The Archive LLC, Tom Streissguth has been a self-employed business owner, independent bookseller and freelance author in the school/library market. Holding a bachelor's degree from Yale, Streissguth has published more than 100 works of history, biography, current affairs and geography for young readers.