Is Your Child’s “School Bus” Injury Barred By Sovereign Immunity?

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It is every parent’s worst nightmare.¬† They get a call from a school official notifying them that their child has been seriously injured while riding a school-owned vehicle.¬† The child has permanent injuries and faces a lifetime of pain and suffering.¬† The parents face mounting medical bills that threaten to bankrupt them.¬† The parents learn that the bus driver, a school employee,¬†was speeding and was otherwise driving negligently so they decide to sue the local Board of Education to recover monetary damages to pay for those bills.¬† However, in North Carolina, the case may get dismissed based on the type of vehicle in which the child was traveling and/or the type of school-related activity that formed the basis for the trip.¬† The doctrine of sovereign immunity bars many types of cases against governmental entities, including school boards.¬† Even though a student is injured while riding a school-owned vehicle on a school-sanctioned trip, some cases may be barred while others are not.¬† If you are a motorist and are¬†negligently broadsided by a school-owned vehicle, your case may be similarly barred depending on the type of vehicle or activity.

Most non-lawyers are unfamiliar with the doctrine of sovereign immunity.¬† Sovereign immunity, which exempts government entities from liability for the torts of its agents, arose from the English feudal concept that ‚Äúthe king could do no wrong‚ÄĚ and thus could not be liable for damage to his subjects.¬†¬†The doctrine originated in the English case of Russel v. Men of Devon, which held that an unincorporated town could not be liable for damage caused by a defective bridge.¬†¬†The doctrine has been under critical attack for approximately ninety years.¬† Perhaps the strongest argument for the abandonment or limitation of the doctrine is its inconsistency with the modern socio-ethical notion that the risk of wrongful injury should not be borne by the person upon whom the misadventure falls but by society as a whole. Another primary argument is the increasingly extensive activity of government results in a higher risk of injuries to individuals. Thus, it has been argued that compensation of government tort victims should be considered a justifiable and expected cost of modern government.

The North Carolina Supreme Court first adopted the doctrine of sovereign immunity in Moffitt v. Asheville, 103 N.C. 237, 9 S.E. 695 (1885). Sovereign immunity was originally not part of North Carolina’s common law and early cases rejected the doctrine. However, since the Moffitt decision, the doctrine has been accepted in North Carolina law and has been recognized by the General Assembly as the policy of the State. Corum v. University of North Carolina, 330 N.C. 761, 413 S.E.2d 276 (1992).

However, almost sixty years ago, the North Carolina legislature enacted G.S. ¬ß 143-300.1 which permits certain cases to proceed against school boards for injuries that occur while riding a school bus.  The public policy behind the statute is clear. The legislature determined that any purported benefits of governmental immunity were outweighed by the need to protect children and other members of the traveling public who were injured by school transportation services. North Carolina has an interest in making sure its most vulnerable and innocent young citizens are protected. Further, the size of buses used for school transportation pose a greater risk to other citizens in the event of a collision.

In 2012, the North Carolina Department of Transportation Division of Motor Vehicles issued a report concerning traffic crash statistics in the State. The report lists the number and severity of school bus crashes by county.  In 2012, there were 792 school bus crashes.  Those crashes resulted in 782 injuries and 2 fatalities.  In Mecklenburg County alone, there were 157 bus crashes which resulted in 105 injuries.

The Institute for Transportation Research and Education of North Carolina State University summarized school-related crash data for every county in the State for the 2001-02 school year.  Specifically, the Institute looked at the number of accidents involving all forms of transportation including, but not limited to, school buses, activity buses, commercial buses, and other buses.  Included in the report are travel-related accidents that occurred between September 1, 2001, and June 15, 2002, which occurred between the hours of 6 a.m. to 8:59 a.m., and 2 p.m. to 4:59 p.m.

In Mecklenburg County alone, there were 47 ‚Äúnon-incapacitating‚ÄĚ injuries that occurred on school buses. There were 11 non-incapacitating injuries that occurred as a result of crashes involving buses other than the traditional yellow buses that commonly transport children to and from school.¬† Thus, almost 20% of all student injuries occurred on other buses which include activity buses.¬† These statistics do not include the number or nature of the injuries to other motorists involved in these collisions.¬† Further, many bus accidents occur while transporting students to school-sanctioned athletic events or other field trips outside normal school hours.

If you or your child is injured in an accident involving a school-owned transportation vehicle, it is essential that you consult with a lawyer experienced in handling such cases.  There are many pitfalls that, if improperly handled, could result in an otherwise viable case being dismissed.  The lawyer must be well-versed in determining the proper parties and the proper venue in which to file (state court vs. the NC Industrial Commission).  The lawyer must also be familiar with the right questions to ask in discovery to prove the case.  The Law Office of Kevin J. Williams, PLLC, is familiar with such issues.

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Attorney Kevin J. Williams at his desk in his Greensboro North Carolina office.
Attorney Kevin J. Williams at his desk in his Greensboro North Carolina office.

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