The MLO Minute: “Money Damage Claims and Public School Districts in Pennsylvania” By Michael Connolly, Esq., Supervising Partner of our Special Education Department
Claims for money damages against a public school district in Pennsylvania for any kind of injury suffered by a student on school grounds or at a school function is difficult in light of the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act (“PSTCA”), which provides public school districts with immunity from lawsuits based on intentional torts or negligence with very few limited exceptions. As a result, such claims, to be successful, often must be alleged in other ways. For example, sometimes money damage claims can be brought against a public school district under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act, where disability-based discrimination resulted in the injury.
However, in 2019, the Pennsylvania legislature updated the PSTCA to include a new — and to date little used — exception to the immunity from lawsuits otherwise provided by the Act. Specifically, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 8542(b)(9) permits suit against local agencies and their employees, including school districts, in cases involving sexual abuse provided “the injuries to the plaintiff were cause by the actions or omissions of the local agency which constitute negligence.” This amendment to the PSTCA was made retroactive, meaning it applies to claims that arose prior to the amendment’s effective date.
This exception has been addressed by courts in two recent cases. In the first case, Jane Doe v. Harrisburg School District, the plaintiff was allegedly sexually assaulted by another student in the bathroom. In the second case, R.B. v. Bethlehem Area School District, the plaintiff was allegedly sexually assaulted on the school bus by another student. In both cases the plaintiffs alleged that the school district and certain staff members were negligent in their duty of care to the plaintiff, and in both cases the defendants filed a motion to dismiss which were denied. Interestingly, in R.B. the School District argued that the sexual abuse exception didn’t apply because the alleged perpetrator was a minor and therefore the assault could not be considered a crime. In rejecting that argument, the court pointed out that no where in the PSTCA does it require the sexual abuse be a crime, or that there be a conviction or even charges brought.
While every case is fact specific, and there must be a connection between the alleged negligence on the District’s part and the sexual abuse, the courts that have considered the sexual abuse exception to the PSTCA so far have interpreted it broadly in favor of plaintiffs. If you have questions or concerns regarding your child and money damage claims, please do not hesitate to contact us. Our firm provides free consultations in all special education and damages matters, and most cases are handled without charge to families. Families should not hesitate to reach out to us for a free consultation.