Public school immunity bill nears chamber hearings

Feb 20, 2012

A bill to shield public schools from lawsuits when groups like the local little league or individuals use their facilities after hours, is making its way through the legislature. Lynn Hatter reports the proposal has had an easy ride through most of its committee stops, and faces little resistance.

Senator Jim Norman says the intent behind his public school sovereign immunity bill is simple:

 “This is so needed. Taxpayers paid for these properties. Taxpayer properties that are sitting there when kids in the communities cannot access these properties.”  

Norman, a Republican from Tampa says his bill would open school grounds to the public after-hours. Groups like the local YMCA could sign agreements with the school district to use the facilities on weekends or in the afternoons. And, should an accident happen, the district would be shielded from lawsuits in most cases. Fellow Republican Senator Andy Gardiner says he supports the bill.

 “We had this exact problem in Orlando a few years ago where there was a YMCA located right next to a school and there was a fence to keep them apart. And if this goes a little bit further…with all due respect to the attorney’s but sometimes I think we over-litigate to the point where it’s just easier to put up a fence instead of trying to work it out.” 

Ricky Bell is the director of Student Activities with the Leon County School District. It has agreements with both the city and county to allow the little league or other city-county sponsored group to use school gyms, tracks, and stadiums.

 “For over 20 years we’ve had a joint-use agreement with the city of Tallahassee and the board of county commissioners.” 

The district also allows organizations like the YMCA to rent spaces, with some addendums.

 “They have to have insurance that covers us in case someone gets hurt, and then we a fee set to rent the facility for the day.  We make them have about a million dollars-worth of coverage that names us as additional insured. In case there is a lawsuit—and we’re not the ones being sued, the group that rented the facility is.” 

Bell says the district’s current policy has worked well over the years, yet notes that there are some districts that don’t let outside groups use their facilities out of concern for lawsuits. One area Bell says he would really like to see addressed, is when individuals use school properties—for example: the person who runs the high school track after hours.

 “If the bill would grant us sovereign immunity that would be great. We wouldn’t have to worry about all that stuff.”  

The bill by Senator Jim Norman would extend that sovereign immunity to schools in those instances as well. The proposal has lots of support and widespread agreement, even from groups like the Florida Justice Association, which opposes it. The Associations Paul Jess says while his group likes the concept of the bill, he worries the immunity language goes too far.

 “This is a well-intentioned bill that we look forward to supporting somewhere in the process at this point where are opposed because of the limited liability section of the bill which we read as too broad.” 

Jess says as the proposal is currently written, it would also shield school districts from lawsuits when students are injured on campus in the course of a regular school day.

 “The immunity from liability in the bill is not limited to the public that use the school grounds pursuant to the joint-access, its broad enough to the students who are using the school during the day.” 

Under current law, districts and schools can be held liable when people are seriously injured on campus regardless of when it occurs. But Norman’s bill raises the burden of proof on people who want to file lawsuits. The Justice Association says with a few tweaks to the bill, it could get behind it. The districts say any kind of immunity is good for them. And Norman says he’s just trying to do his part to fight the obesity  epidemic in kids by giving greater access to play areas—especially in neighborhoods  where a school may be the only place to go. The bill cleared the committee unanimously and now heads to its last committee stop. A similar bill is also moving in the House.