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Who Is Liable When School Science Lab Accidents Result in Serious or Fatal Injury?

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Last June, a North Hollywood, California high school was evacuated after a chemistry experiment went wrong. The chemistry teacher had conducted the experiment earlier in the morning, mixing sulfuric acid and sugar, but in the afternoon she mixed nitric acid and sugar by mistake, causing reddish brown clouds to form. Two students were hospitalized and 900 were evacuated; two staff members were also taken to a hospital to receive treatment for dizziness, headaches and respiratory problems.

“This was not the first instance of a lab mishap presenting a danger to students,” explained California personal injury lawyer James Ballidis.

The Dangers of Science Lab Experiments

As schools have moved away from book-based instruction and into more hands-on learning experiences, chemistry and science lab experiments have become a routine part of the curriculum. In 2002, an article in the Los Angeles Times indicated that new federal science standards had prompted a focus on hands-on, inquiry-based science. According to the article, many teachers were not properly trained in lab safety and many accidents were occurring as a result.

The Times indicated that at least 150 students in the four years prior to the article’s publication had suffered serious accidents, with the real number likely being much higher. One such accident involved a Riverside girl who suffered burns over 20 percent of her body. Numerous other reported fires also left victims in schools throughout California, Michigan, Texas and Washington D.C. severely burned.

The 2002 article indicated that many teachers were unaware of dangers; that there was no formal system to share information on accidents; that school buildings were ill-equipped to serve as lab environments and that there were few regulations designed to ensure safety in school labs.

Regulations on School Laboratories

Today, nearly a decade after this article was published, significant dangers in school laboratories still exist.

One major problem is the lack of comprehensive regulatory oversight of the labs. Title 5 of the California Code of Regulations imposes requirements on school laboratories, including a requirement that the labs be at least 1300 square feet. Title 5 also mandates that school labs comply with the requirements in “Science Facilities Design for California Public Schools,” and with the “Science Safety Handbook for California Public Schools,” both published by the California State Department of Education. However, there are no comprehensive programs in place to monitor school lab dangers or inspect labs for safety violations.


Liability and Lab Safety Accidents

Schools and teachers act in loco parentis and have an obligation to protect students. Typically, based on the in loco parentis standard teachers must anticipate foreseeable dangers and do everything they reasonably can to minimize those dangers, including supervising students, especially when students are engaged in dangerous activities.

In determining whether a teacher will be responsible for an accident, a reasonable teacher standard is used. This is a professional standard of care and the behavior of the teacher is compared to what a reasonable teacher with similar training and a similar background would have done in the particular situation. If a reasonable teacher would have been more careful, then the teacher in question can be considered negligent. If that negligence was the direct cause of harm, the teacher could potentially be held liable.

Because teachers are agents of the school, the school could also be held vicariously liable for the negligence of its teachers. This means that the teachers’ negligence is essentially considered equivalent to the school’s negligence.

Finally, schools that have inadequate lab environments or that fail to comply with all safety requirements or have reasonable safety policies can be liable on the basis of their own negligence. A violation of Title 5 requirements could also be seen as presumptive evidence of negligence.

While some limited protections may be available under governmental immunity laws for public schools and for teachers acting within the scope of their public duty, tort laws generally will allow for an injured student to take action if an unsafe lab causes him or her harm.

Additional information on this and other public safety and personal injury law subjects is available to the public free of charge through our office’s Preferred Friends and Clients Program.

To request a free article, or to speak with a California personal injury lawyer, feel free to call 866-981-5596.

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