There have been some stories on the news lately about a student who was burned during a chemistry experiment performed during class. Back in August of last year, a teacher in a DeKalb County School performed a demonstration of lighting a dollar bill on fire using ethanol and water. She apparently had performed the same demonstration using just alcohol with little success. When the teacher tried the demonstration using ethanol, the dollar bill, in a glass, caught on fire, broke the glass and traveled across a table onto the student, who had his head down on the table. It severely burned the student. The student hired counsel who has sued the teacher and the school. They are now reports in the news that the school system won’t pay for his reconstructive surgery.
This really is neither surprising or shocking. The DeKalb School system enjoys the benefit of “sovereign immunity,” which means it is immune from suit. County school systems, county agencies, county departments, really anything to do with counties, cannot be sued successfully for most causes of action. Sure, you can file suit against them, but 9.9 times out of 10 it will be dismissed on summary judgment based on sovereign immunity.
There are a few exceptions. One example would be a lawsuit for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Title II of the ADA provides that “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs or activities of a public entity, or be subject to discrimination by an such entity.” A disabled person who falls within the class of persons protected by the ADA may successfully sue a county for violation of the ADA, for things such as failure to maintain a sidewalk in the county that inhibits that person’s ability to move on the sidewalk. For example, if a person is confined to a wheelchair, she must be able to use the sidewalk as any capable-bodied person, so the sidewalk must have proper curb cuts to allow the wheelchair to gain access to the sidewalk and there must not be any holes in the sidewalk that would prevent the wheelchair from easily moving over the sidewalk. Sovereign immunity does not protect a county when it has violated the ADA and it grants the disabled citizen a private cause of action to enforce it. It is important for private citizens to be able to hold Georgia counties accountable for ADA violations as the number of people in the United States who are disabled in some form continues to rise. For example, it is estimated that one in 4 U.S. adults – 61 million Americans – have a disability that impacts major life activities, according to a report in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Of those disabled citizens, 13.7% have a mobility disability and an estimated 4.6% have a vision impairment. So you can why it is important that even counties not be immune for failure to comply with the ADA. Disability affects us all.