Teachers’ Liability on Students’ Injury in Schools

Being a teacher is more than a provider of quality education. Aside from the responsibilities of making daily lesson plans, instructional materials, and other unending paper works, child care is one of the most important aspects that has been often taken for granted until a lawsuit is filed against the erring teacher. Teachers have to be consciously aware of all professional obligations the society is expecting from them.

Since the implementation of the Child Protection Policy in schools, parents and students now are more aware of their rights. Giving more emphasis on child-centeredness for learners, the present education system has put teachers to be held more accountable for their actions in schools. More so, the increased complaints prove that more parents and students are willing to pursue those rights to recover compensation. A legal cause of action against a teacher may arise in many instances, and this is inevitable.

TEACHERS’ LIABILITY

The moment a child is enrolled in a school, the parent places the child under the effective authority of the school. Its administrators and teachers, or the individual, entity or institution engaged in child care have special parental authority and responsibility for the minor child while under their supervision, instruction or custody (Art. 218, Family Code of the Philippines). The school authorities and teachers are considered a substitute parent or one who stands in loco parentis and as such, shall exercise substitute parental authority over his students (Art. 349, par. 2 of RA 386). Therefore, they are answerable for the accident or injury sustained or committed by the student while under their custody, along with other kinds of injuries, like emotional or academic problems resulting from harassment or abuse. Parents cannot be held liable for the very reason that the parent is not supposed to interfere with the authority and supervision of the teacher while the child is under the custody of the school.

These legal bases specify that special parental authority and responsibility of the teachers and school authorities to children covers not only during school hours but also outside school hours where the students are on school property, during break time, lunch time, play time, flag ceremony/retreat, field trip, work immersion, and the like, as long as the child is under their custody. Therefore, there is always a presumption that the school authorities and teachers of school may be liable for negligence when something happened to a child under their care. The teacher inside the classroom has direct responsibility for his/her students. The question is who among the personnel in school is specifically liable outside school hours? The law does not distinguish. If in case you witnessed a potential danger during break time, wouldn’t you, as an employed teacher of that school, act to prevent it for the reason that you are not the subject teacher or class adviser of the learner in danger? Was the school head also in breach of a non-delegable duty of care to students to ensure there was adequate supervision for the student at the time? All of these will be weighed by the court to decide on whether or not the school failed to exercise proper diligence to protect its students based on the surrounding circumstances to prevent the injury.

HOW THE LAW OF EDUCATIONAL NEGLIGENCE OPERATES

There are two aspects to negligence in schools (Watson v. Haines (1987) ATR 80-094). This holds in our setting under Article 2180 of the New Civil Code:

1. The negligence of teachers to students.

Teachers have a duty of care to students to provide adequate supervision. This may occur in the playground, on the sports field, in the classroom or on a field trip. Under the doctrine of vicarious liability, the school authority may be liable to pay the plaintiff for the negligence of teachers. It does not, however, negate the personal responsibility of the teacher.

2. The negligence of school authorities.

Negligence of school authorities may arise where the grounds or equipment are unsafe, and a student is injured. School authorities have a non-delegable duty to students to ensure that reasonable care is taken for the safety of children at the school environment.

The responsibility of teachers shall cease upon proof that they observed all the diligence of a good father of a family to prevent damage.

In any untoward incident in schools, there is always a reason to believe that the school was negligent in taking precautions for the safety of its students. The school, its administrators and teachers, may only exempt themselves from the liability imposed by the law if they can prove that they exercised the proper diligence required under particular circumstances. (2nd par. Art. 218, Id.) They must show that they observed proper care based on the surrounding circumstances to prevent the untoward incident. It also denotes the absence of negligence.

To prove that the incident is purely accidental to avoid liability, it must be shown that it is a fortuitous event, which refers to an extraordinary event that is not foreseeable, or though foreseeable, is unavoidable. Tronc (1996) has advised that teachers have legal responsibility for the safety of their students. They are expected to act with caution, sensible leadership, and wise guidance. Their legal brief is to assess the foreseeable dangers, to guard against risk, to take reasonable precaution against injury and, above all, to generally behave as superior parents would be expected to act in the nurture and training of their children.

PARENT’S PERMIT/WAIVER

A standard defense to negligence is volenti non fit injuria, which means the plaintiff has willingly assumed the risk. The defense is narrowly interpreted, and schools relying on exemptions clauses, even if signed by parents, to avoid liability are extremely unlikely to succeed. Art 218 is clear that “authority and responsibility shall apply to all authorized activities whether inside or outside the premises of the school, entity or institution.” In the case of St. Francis (G.R. No. 82465), the Court still held some teachers responsible despite the fact that the parent permitted the child to go to the picnic.

WHAT DO TEACHERS NEED TO DO IF THERE IS AN ACCIDENT?

Not all the parents of public school learners are ignorant about R.A. 386 and Art. 218 of the Family Code of the Philippines. Better be prepared than be a sitting duck on unwanted lawsuits. Helen Newnham (2000) recommended the following actions. These may help the teachers defend and exempt themselves from the liability imposed by the law:

  • Follow the School Child Protection Policy.
  • Document as many details as possible including, how the accident occurred, the nature of the injuries, who administered first aid, who was present at the time of the accident, the events leading up to and including the incident, what happened subsequently and who was notified.
  • The document must be signed and dated, and a copy kept. Notes made contemporaneously have been shown to carry greater weight in court than a witness relying on memory. It is worth remembering the time limitations for negligence can be substantial. The quality of the documentation made at the time of the accident may be the difference between a successful defense of a claim and the plaintiff proving their case.
  • If a teacher or school authority is sued, that matter must only be discussed with the defendant’s lawyer. An individual teacher may need his or her lawyer if there is a conflict of interest between the teacher’s liability and that of the school’s. It is worth noting that no one wants to accept liability and if they can find someone else to blame they will.

Education authorities, individual schools, and teachers need to understand the law of negligence and what must be proved against them to at least reduce the potential for a successful lawsuit by accusers. It is worth noting that most of the cases in public schools are settled out of court. The teacher-defendant accepts liability and agrees to pay the compensation conditional on the settlement remaining confidential. However, this does not erase the fact that someone has been negligent and there may be employment repercussions even though the case was not heard in open court (Newnham, 2000). Remember, the payment done was only for the civil liability but an administrative or a criminal complaint is a separate issue.

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