Is it really necessary to inform the school district that a student died in a school bus accident?

Warning: this Daily Dawg entry is probably of more practical use to the lawyers than the educators. Nevertheless, I hope all readers find it an interesting illustration of how Texas cases involving possible tort liability are litigated.

We first reported this case last month (December 13th). At that time we told you about the lawsuit filed by a family in La Joya over the tragic death of their 13-year old son.  They sued the school district, alleging that the boy’s death was caused by the bus driver’s negligence in operating the bus.  In last month’s entry, we explained how the court concluded that the suit did allege a negligent operation of the bus, thus giving the court jurisdiction to hear the case.  But in order to even get that far with the case, the family had to clear another hurdle.  They had to prove that they had given proper notice of the claim to the school district.  Under the Texas Tort Claims Act, plaintiffs must give notice to the school district of the claim within six months of the plaintiff’s alleged injury.

In this case, the family failed to do that.  So the case should be dismissed, right?  Wrong. Turns out there is an exception to the requirement.  Notice is not required if “the governmental unit has actual notice that death has occurred, that the claimant has received some injury, or that the claimant’s property has been damaged.”  Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code Section 101.101(c).

Well, the school district certainly knew that “death has occurred.”  After all, this was a 13-year old boy, hit by a car while running to catch the school bus in the morning.  The school district knew about it. So the parents didn’t have to give notice. The case should go forward, right?

Maybe not.  There’s another wrinkle.  The Texas Supreme Court has previously held that just knowing that a death has occurred is not enough to put the governmental entity on notice.  The governmental entity must know of its own “alleged fault producing or contributing to the death, injury, or property damage.” It also has to have knowledge of the parties involved. Cathey v. Booth, 900 S.W.2d 339 (Tex. 1995).

To summarize then, plaintiffs have to give notice within six months, unless the school district has actual notice of 1) a death, an injury or property damage; 2) the parties involved; and 3) its own possible culpability.

This case turned on that third factor.   In ruling on it, the court cited a recorded, Spanish language conversation between the bus driver and a student.  Based on the driver’s words and his actions, the court concluded that “there is a fact issue as to whether the District had actual notice of its ‘alleged fault producing or contributing to’ [the student’s] death.”

Thus the parent convinced the court that the district’s Plea to the Jurisdiction should be denied.  Although the parent had not given formal notice to the district, there was sufficient evidence of the district’s awareness of the incident, including the driver’s potential culpability, that the case would not be dismissed. The parent would have the opportunity to pursue the matter.

The case is La Joya ISD v. Gonzalez. The Plea to the Jurisdiction was denied by the Court of Appeals for Corpus Christi and Edinburg on November 2, 2017. We found it at 2017 WL 4987145.


Tomorrow: students posting on Instagram in a “careless” and “thoughtless” way. Can you imagine?