The number of violent deaths in American public and private schools has dropped significantly since the 1990s. However, that statistic is little comfort to the families of these children. Furthermore, these incidents always make major headlines, putting considerable pressure on law enforcement to make arrests and prosecutors to obtain convictions.
Violent incidents at school, or at school-related functions, like field trips and athletic contests, seriously injure children, even if the children survive. These serious injuries, which are normally permanent, are both physical and emotional. Our natural tendency is to “blame” someone for these injuries, even if that someone had little to do with the violent incident.
The issues in these cases are obviously complex, and we’re just getting started. Lawyers make things a little easier. A Marietta personal injury attorney obtains compensation for victims and survivors in court. This compensation usually includes money for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering. A Marietta criminal defense lawyer works equally hard to defend the rights of accused persons in criminal court. Normally, criminal cases settle out of court.
Civil actions do more than compensate victims, as mentioned above. They also hold school officials responsible when they fail to protect children. This responsibility applies if a Marietta personal injury attorney proves (or disproves) the following elements by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not).
Duty of Care
Most states, including Georgia, divide fall, assault, and other premises liability victims into three categories to determine the duty of care:
- Invitee: Schools give students permission to be at school. Students benefit schools economically. The state pays schools when children attend. Therefore, students are invitees under Georgia law, meaning that they have a duty of reasonable care to ensure safety.
- Licensee: Guests at school, such as parents and siblings attending a choir concert, are licensees, at least in most cases. The school basically doesn’t care if they show up or not. There’s permission, but no benefit. Therefore, the duty of care is lower. It’s usually limited to warning licensees about latent (hidden) security defects.
- Trespasser: These individuals don’t have permission to be at school and they don’t benefit the school. So, there’s usually no duty of care. Some exceptions could apply, like the attractive nuisance rule.
These categories are rather unclear. Moreover, they sometimes overlap. If Jim comes to school and rides his skateboard in the parking lot, he could be an invitee or a trespasser.
In practical terms, compensation for school violence victims is usually only available to invitees. So, a Marietta personal injury lawyer must present substantial evidence to prove this point, usually at a pretrial hearing.
Knowledge of Hazard
Additionally, compensation is only available if the school knew about, or should have known about, the injury hazard. In this context, injury hazards usually include:
- Violent bullies,
- Credible security threats,
- Security issues near the school, and
- Inadequate security, such as a broken gate or propped-open door.
Direct evidence of actual knowledge usually includes security reports and written surveys. Announcement transcripts could be admissible on this point as well (e.g. “we’re aware of a situation in the neighborhood and we’re monitoring it”).
The time-notice rule usually controls circumstantial evidence of constructive knowledge (should have known) matters. Basically, the longer a hazard existed, the more likely it is the school should have known about it and should have done something about it.
Several legal defenses are available in premises liability claims. In this post, we’ll highlight two, sovereign immunity and lack of foreseeability.
Sovereign immunity is basically the same doctrine that protects police officer accused of unlawful shootings. In the Middle Ages, victims couldn’t sue the government. According to the prevailing belief at the time, since God appointed the sovereign (king or queen), the sovereign couldn’t do anything wrong.
A watered-down version of this doctrine still exists. Usually, victims can only sue governments for ministerial acts, as opposed to discretionary acts. Jim’s family cannot sue a school because it didn’t have a strong anti-bullying policy, but it can sue the school if officials didn’t adequately enforce a written policy.
Foreseeability of injury is basically possibility of injury. Since third parties commit violent crimes at schools, school officials are only financially responsible for a foreseeable injury. Evidence of foreseeability includes prior similar incidents at that school and in the neighborhood.
Criminal courts punish violent criminal offenders. Like a civil case, a criminal case has several different phases.
Criminal investigations of violent crimes usually involve confidential informant statements. Violent criminals rarely act alone. They usually have associates. Frequently, police officers “encourage” these associates to provide names and other information.
Informants must usually testify in court, per the Fifth Amendment’s confrontation clause. Snitches don’t have much credibility with jurors to begin with. These individuals usually testify in exchange for money or leniency. If a Marietta criminal defense lawyer aggressively cross-examines such witnesses, they usually break down or tell inconsistent stories.
Many teens are easily intimidated, so police officer bullying issues often arise in these cases. Additionally, teens have underdeveloped brains. They can’t always recall specific events, especially during periods of extreme stress.
Most teen violent offender cases could be assigned to adult criminal court or juvenile court. The offense is the same in either forum, but the approach is different.
Criminal courts focus on punishment, as mentioned above. Juvenile courts often stress rehabilitation over punishment, unless the teen has a criminal record.
In juvenile or adult court, most criminal cases settle out of court. This resolution usually keeps a criminal conviction off the defendant’s permanent record.
Deferred disposition is a good example. When the defendant pleads guilty (or no contest), the judge “defers” the “disposition” of guilt until the defendant completes probation. If the defendant successfully completes all requirements, and there’s a difference between successful completion and perfect completion, the judge dismisses the case.
Violent school incidents create many legal issues. For a free consultation with an experienced Marietta criminal defense attorney, contact The Phillips Law Firm, LLC. The sooner you reach out to us, the sooner we start working for you.