COVID-19 Personal Injury Claims Against an Arizona School District
Will the new school year bring a new class of personal injury claims against the schools? Not likely.
As Arizona prepares to send its students back to school, parents and school district administrations across the state face a multitude of decisions. On July 24, 2020, Governor Ducey announced Arizona’s “Open For Learning” plan outlining the State’s strategy to continue education throughout the upcoming academic year. Public schools are required to offer free on-site learning or support for students who need a place to go beginning August 17, 2020. Many districts will allow students to go to school at that time but will institute on-line learning. This, in theory, will relieve those parents who simply cannot oversee their children during the day due to work or other obligations. The individual districts have been granted latitude in how to approach their return with many districts indicating they will be online-only, at least initially, including TUSD.
As the districts continue making determinations on how to proceed, the main liability insurer in Arizona for public schools, the Arizona Risk Retention Trust (The Trust) has announced it will not pay claims for COVID-19 related injuries.
The Trust is essentially a pool of money paid into by all participating public-school districts that is then administered by a board. Essentially, the Trust has stated they will provide legal counsel, should a district face a claim, but will not provide funds from said trust to pay any awards. School districts must now face the possibility, however remote, that a claim brought against a district by the parent of an infected child, may be successful. If that happens, the district itself will be paying directly from its pocket for the damages.
The Trust has spent the last few months polishing up a waiver for parents to sign that protects the districts from liability. Nonetheless, the risk of a potential winning claim against a district will surely weigh heavy on the district administrations across the State. The school districts hope that State law makers will soon pass a law that effectively immunizes them from COVID-19 related claims.
Make no mistake, a claim against a district, even without state-imposed immunity, will not be an easy win. A parent plaintiff will likely have to prove that the child contracted the disease from the school as a result of the school’s negligence in its protocol or the execution of its plan for protecting the students. This will be a near impossible standard to meet as a virus can be contracted from numerous sources and tracing with any certainty can produce tenuous results.
Thus, there is potential for a whole new realm of potential personal injury claims that may crop up in the next few years. Their success is far from guaranteed.