Published Online:

Most Legal Issues In Lab Accidents Are Unresolved

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

If the unthinkable happens in a school science laboratory, who is responsible?

In most states, it is the local board of education.

Typically, teachers have been found liable in lab-accident cases only when they were proven grossly negligent of students' safety. And in many states and school districts, statutes and teachers' contracts require that local school boards indemnify teachers against legal action.

"The principles of legal liability in the lab are really no different from the principles of legal liability in any other tort case, be it product liability or an auto accident," said Timothy F. Gerard, an Iowa lawyer and educator who lectures frequently on the subject.

"Usually, it's the school board that ends up paying, and their liability insurance has gotten horribly expensive," Mr. Gerard said. "So they're trying to keep the risk down."

Because most lab-accident suits are settled out of court or decided in trial court--and thus never reported--no one knows how common they are.

Experts believe, however, that the number of lawsuits in this area is growing, although it has not kept pace with what Mr. Gerard describes as an "explosion" in product-liability cases.

Mr. Gerard and others fully expect the number of suits and the amounts awarded to continue to grow--particularly because school systems now carry such large insurance policies.

Furthermore, added Jack Gerlovich, the Iowa Department of Education's science adviser, more accident cases are going to jury trials now. A plaintiff--particularly a badly burned child who appears in court--is more likely to win before a jury than before a judge alone.

Although many schools ask students to sign forms attesting that they have received lab-safety training, neither such forms nor releases protect the school system from liability. But in cases where several parties are named as defendants, Mr. Gerlovich said, the use of such forms may minimize the damages levied against school systems.

Mr. Gerard also speculated that textbook publishers--who traditionally have been protected against liability by agreement with the textbook authors--may find themselves drawn into cases more often than they have been in the past.

"Educators are concerned," Mr. Gerard said, "because of the size of awards recently, insurance costs, and the general litigious trend in our society."

Iowa Department of Education's science adviser, more accident cases are going to jury trials now. A plaintiff--particularly a badly burned child who appears in court--is more likely to win before a jury than before a judge alone.

Although many schools ask students to sign forms attesting that they have received lab-safety train-ing, neither such forms nor releases protect the school system from liability.

But in cases where several parties are named as defendants, Mr. Gerlovich said, the use of such forms may minimize the damages levied against school systems.

Mr. Gerard also speculated that textbook publishers--who tradi6tionally have been protected against liability by agreement with the textbook authors--may find themselves drawn into cases more often than they have been in the past.

"Educators are concerned," Mr. Gerard said, "because of the size of awards recently, insurance costs, and the general litigious trend in our society."

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login |  Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Commented