Officials: New bill will spike lawsuits against School District

Aug 15, 2011

The following article was published in the Winter Haven News Chief on August 15, 2011:

Officials:  New bill will spike lawsuits against School District

By Melissa Green

Polk County School District officials expect to see an increase in lawsuits filed against them when a new bill takes effect that increases the cap on damages awarded.

Effective Oct. 1, plaintiffs can sue for up to $200,000 rather than the previous cap of $100,000.

Because the Polk County School District is the largest employer in Polk County, its sheer size lends it vulnerable to lawsuits, said School Board Attorney Wes Bridges. The district has about 13,000 employees, more than 160 separate locations and about 93,000 students.

“While we take all reasonable precautions, from time to time you get a bump,” Bridges said. “We know there are certain risks that are inherent in our business.”

That includes an occasional fender bender with school buses, he said. Most of the claims against the School District involve slips, falls, auto accidents and injuries during physical education.

Bridges said about 25 suits are filed against the district each year.

Money awarded to plaintiffs comes from the School District’s general fund.

“Those revenues are generated primarily from property taxes,” Bridges said. “In tough economic times, increasing the damage cap does make us an attractive target for plaintiffs and plaintiffs’ lawyers.”

Mark Grey, the district’s assistant superintendent of business services, agrees.

“For every dollar spent on a claim, that’s less dollars that can be spent in the classroom,” he said.

District officials have been wrangling for months on how to make up a $35.4 million revenue shortfall to the budget. The $730.9 million tentative general fund budget for the 2011-12 school year is $13.5 million less than the previous year.

The budget for outside counsel to defend the district was $228,300 for the 2010-11 school year and the amount will remain the same for the current fiscal year that began July 1. That’s compared with $350,000 the district budgeted in 2007-08 and the amount has gone down to tighten expenses, Bridges said.


While the judgment amounts in the individual claims are small, they add up to significant money. This year, $740,500 has been paid out in settlements and the district has spent $284,335 defending itself. A case against the district is going to cost a minimum of $20,000 in legal fees.

“That’s if we win and there’s no appeal,” Bridges said.

But in 2007, the district spent $53,000 to defend itself in just one case after a Caldwell Elementary parent sued for an injured ankle. The parent didn’t follow the proper procedures of getting security clearance at the school’s main office and slipped in a grassy area that was not near a sidewalk. The jury ruled in favor of the School District.

Last year, the School Board agreed to pay $120,000 to a family that said the former Scott Lake Elementary principal, John Stelmack, inappropriately hugged their two daughters. At the time of the agreement, the district thought it wasn’t liable for Stelmack’s actions but felt responsible for its students, according to David Carmichael, a lawyer with Boswell & Dunlap in Bartow, who represented the School District in the case.

With money being so tight, district officials try to minimize litigation costs, Bridges said.

Joy Myers, director of risk management, has helped with that.

“People matter,” Myers said. “If it has to do with a child being injured, I ask how are they doing because I care. I have found that has opened the door on how to resolve issues before they decide to get an attorney involved. But that doesn’t mean the district pays for things that are not our responsibility.”

If a student does get injured on School Board property and the district is at fault, the district takes care of the claim, Myers said. The district is self-insured and it pays its own claims. A third-party provider handles administration over liability and auto claims.

Students also receive automatic accident insurance through a policy the district has with School Insurance of Florida. During the first week of school, forms are sent home explaining the limited coverage, Myers said.

Another way the district minimizes risk is through training.

For example, if a water drip at a vending machine is seen by an employee at a school, the first response should be to clean it up immediately, Bridges said. The School District also examines practices that could pose a liability. For example, inflatable bounce houses are no longer allowed on School District property.

Most recently, district officials recommended that the School Board change the way it makes bank deposits. The previous procedure was to have either the principal or the school secretary deliver deposits. That entailed a total 280 employees who traveled from schools to banks.

Find this article here: