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Pennsylvania Legislature to Pass Changes to Laws Related to School District Liability for Sex Abuse of Students

Public Versus Private Schools – Laws are Different

Sex abuse or assault occurs in both public and private schools alike and is most often committed by teachers, coaches, school counselors, etc. However, the laws of Pennsylvania make it harder for a victim of sexual abuse in a school or educational setting to seek redress particularly when the school is a public school. Put simply, there is a different set of laws that apply to school abuse that occurs in a public school versus abuse that occurs in a private school. Visit the school sex abuse law library for legal articles and other info.

Pennsylvania Legislature Considering Not-So-Sweeping Changes to Liability Laws

Currently, the Pennsylvania legislature is considering amending state law in cases of sex abuse in public schools. House Bill 1947 was introduced earlier this year in response to another large scale sex abuse scandal involving a diocese in central Pennsylvania. HB 1947 was slated to be one of the most pro-victim bills in recent history, but due to intense lobbying efforts, the Senate Judiciary Committee gutted one of the most important parts of the bill, a retroactive clause that would have opened the doors to justice for many victims whose cases were previously time-barred. Read more about HB 1947 and its pro-victim retroactive clause.

One of the “pro-victim” parts of HB 1947 is a provision that would amend governmental liability law in Pennsylvania. Specifically, HB 1947 would open up liability in situations where a minor is sexually abused due to the government’s negligence. Currently, there is no such liability allowed in Pennsylvania under state law, although, claims may be brought under federal law. Below is an in depth analysis about the proposed changes and how they would really work, or not.

A Brief Background of Government Liability in Pennsylvania

Tort Notice Required

Under Pennsylvania law, government entities like public schools and school districts can only be sued under certain, limited circumstances, specifically set forth by statute. One of the most critical aspects of government entity liability law is the 180 day tort notice requirement. This is a mandatory prerequisite to filing any legal claim against a government entity in Pennsylvania. Failure to file the notice is fatal, although there are very limited exceptions to this rule. The statute is very clear on that.

Government Liability Law

There are two separate laws in Pennsylvania which detail state government liability (large state entities) and local government liability (towns, counties, etc.), the Sovereign Immunity Act and the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, respectively.

For the most part, these two laws are similar in terms of what kinds of negligence claims are allowed, i.e., sidewalk accidents, street lighting, potholes, etc. However, these laws differ when it comes to claims for financial compensation. First, there are two caps on liability: $500,000 for local government entities and $250,000 for state/Commonwealth entities.

Second, there are different limits on what an individual can recover in a lawsuit against a government entity and that depends on whether the entity is local (county/city) or state (Commonwealth). In particular, victims in cases against local entities can only recover for pain and suffering damages in the event of death, permanent loss of a bodily function or permanent disfigurement/dismemberment where the medical/dental expenses exceed $1500. These limitations and the tort notice requirement are particularly important when considering HB 1947.

HB 1947 – Government Liability for Negligence in Allowing Child Molestation to Occur

HB 1947 would amend both of Pennsylvania’s government liability laws and create another exception, thus allowing victims of child molestation to bring claims against government entities. Sounds simple enough, but not so fast.

HB 1947 Fails to Measure Up

At first glance, HB 1947’s government liability law amendments seem very pro-victim. After all, they would make government entities liable for any act of negligence that results in sexual abuse of a minor. These types of exceptions in government liability law are pretty rare. Not many states have passed laws like this—specifically allowing child molestation victims to sue government entities for negligence in allowing abuse to occur. In theory, it’s a great idea and certainly sounds pro-victim. However, the changes proposed by HB 1947 are really a farce. First, the tort notice requirement (180 days or 6 months) makes it practically impossible for child molestation cases to actually proceed against government entities. The 180 day period starts ticking the date of the incident.

Second, there is a statutory limitation applicable to claims against local entities. It prohibits claims for pain and suffering unless death occurred or there was permanent loss of a bodily function or permanent disfigurement/dismemberment where medical expenses exceed $1500. This limitation basically prevents a victim  of child sex abuse from recovering any compensation at all for their pain and suffering.

Here’s an example of how these limitations would work. A child in Philadelphia is in need of foster care. The local government agency places the child with a family, despite clear warning signs and prior reports of sexual misconduct by one of the foster parents. The child is sexually abused by the foster parent. In this instance, let’s assume that there is sufficient evidence of negligence against the government agency.

Even though the child has the legal right to file a lawsuit against the government agency, his claim would be barred by failing to comply with the 180 day tort notice requirement. The child has 180 days from the date of the act of abuse to file a tort notice claim. That’s practically an impossibility, given the fact that children often don’t even know that they are being abused, especially younger children. Older children who do know are often too scared or traumatized to even talk about the abuse. Even if he files the tort notice on time, his claim is subject to the pain and suffering limitation. He can’t get compensated for his pain and suffering unless one of the following occurs: death, permanent loss of a bodily function or permanent disfigurement/dismemberment. So what’s the point?

HB 1947’s government liability law amendments really just amount to lip service to victims of child molestation. Even if these amendments were passed, victims of child molestation still face incredible hurdles when filing claims against government entities for negligence in allowing sex abuse to occur. In order for these amendments to really make a difference, the legislature must do two things. First, it must eliminate the tort notice requirements in cases of sex abuse. Second, it must eliminate the limitations on financial recovery in these cases.

It’s high time for the Pennsylvania legislature to effect real change for victims of abuse. After all, Pennsylvania has been in the limelight for far too long with large-scale sex abuse coverups and scandals. Now is the time for change.

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