Parents send their children to school with a reasonable expectation that they will be as safe as they would be at home however, accidents happen at schools on an alarmingly frequent basis in South Africa.
The safety of children while at school is covered under basic rights in the Constitution and by the South African Schools Act, says Kirstie Haslam, partner at DSC Attorneys.
“Legally, schools are expected to take reasonable measures to ensure the safety of the children in their care,” she said.
“Examples of such measures include barring access to dangerous areas, limiting access to the premises to authorised people only, installing railings where there are high drop-offs and ensuring ramps aren’t slippery.”
Schools are also responsible for monitoring children’s activities while they’re on school grounds, she said.
What constitutes a personal injury case
Haslam said that there is a distinction between criminal action by a teacher or fellow student and a personal injury case.
“For criminal action, such as abuse, theft or physical assault, a case must be opened with the police,” she said. “Any action the parents then choose to take in order to prove the school should have prevented the crime would constitute a civil case.”
Common causes of claims for school accidents and injuries
Haslam highlighted some of the most common causes of personal injury claims in schools:
- Slip and fall accidents, for example due to missing handrails on stairs or slippery floors;
- Playground injuries, for example due to lack of supervision or faulty, dangerous or poorly maintained equipment;
- Sports injuries associated with insufficient adult supervision or poorly maintained equipment;
- Attacks by other students or outsiders, where reasonable measures weren’t taken to prevent these;
- Food poisoning due to contaminated food prepared on the premises or from an outside vendor;
- Fights or bullying, with insufficient adult supervision or intervention;
In 2016, the courts ordered a school to compensate a boy seriously injured after falling on a steel rod used to hold up a sapling tree, Haslam said.
Serious injuries occur regularly on school sports fields.
“For example, 54 serious rugby injuries were reported in South Africa between 2008 and 2011. Of these, over a quarter resulted in quadriplegia,” she said.
In 2013, a 13-year-old boy was badly injured when a group of school children were flipping each other into the air using the cricket nets at school.
“Although the area was off-limits, it was successfully argued that the school teachers were supposed to monitor children during breaks and should have prevented the accident,” she said. The boy’s family was awarded R23.5 million in damages by the Pretoria High Court.”
In a separate 2011 incident, a boy sustained brain damage after rolling off an upper bunk bed (with no protective railing) onto a concrete floor at a school camp.
Haslam said that both the camp and the Department of Education were found liable, given failure of those in charge to foresee the danger or take steps to prevent it.
Violence at school
Over the first six months of 2019, a total of seven school stabbings have been reported in South Africa.
In cases involving attacks with weapons in schools, Haslam said that it may be argued that the schools should have prevented the weapons from being brought onto school grounds.
Not all attacks involve easily concealed weapons. The legal expert said that one of the most shocking occurred in 2008, when a learner armed with a sword killed a fellow pupil and injured a learner and two school employees.
A more recent (tragic) example of actionable neglect on the part of schools to provide a safe environment for children has been the death of a number of children using so-called pit toilets at school. Haslam said that courts have held that this failure to provide safe and decent sanitation for children constitutes a human rights violation.
Pursuing compensation for school accidents and injuries
Where grounds exist for a personal injury claim, Haslam said that it’s possible to claim compensation for:
- Out-of-pocket medical expenses;
- Future medical costs – for example, for medication, therapy and equipment;
- Future loss of earning capacity, where it is shown that the pupil’s future working and earning potential has been diminished as a result of the injuries;
- Pain and suffering.