When my children were riding a bus to elementary school every day, like most parents I trusted the school bus driver to deliver them safely to school and back to our neighborhood. Usually that is what happens as school buses are generally considered the safest means of transporting children to and from school.

But occasionally children are seriously injured or killed in the process of being transported by school buses. We have successfully handled some of those cases.

School bus injury cases are not the same as car wreck cases. Lawyers handling those need to know the legal wrinkles unique to school bus personal injury and wrongful death cases in Georgia.

The biggest wrinkle in school bus injury cases is immunity.  Sovereign immunity, or governmental immunity, is the legal doctrine that the state (“sovereign”) is immune from civil suits unless it waives that immunity.  In Georgia, public schools have sovereign immunity from most injury claims. When we get calls about kids injured at school, about 99% of the time I have to tell folks they don’t have a case. I won’t take up space here to outline the extremely narrow exceptions for injuries at school.

Similarly, official immunity protects government officials and employees from liability for discretionary acts but not ministerial acts.

A ministerial act is one that is simple, absolute, and definite, arising under conditions admitted or proved to exist, and requiring merely the execution of a specific duty. A discretionary act, however, calls for the exercise of personal deliberation and judgment, which in turn entails examining the facts, reaching reasoned conclusions, and acting on them in a way not specifically directed.

Official immunity protects public officers acting in their official capacity from suit unless they negligently perform a ministerial duty or act with actual malice or intent to cause injury while performing a discretionary duty. While a departmental policy requiring certain actions under certain situations may convert an activity from discretionary to ministerial, the decision whether specific acts are ministerial or discretionary is determined by the facts of the particular case. If the public employee must balance multiple factors and consequences, that makes the act discretionary. Standard v. Hobbs, 263 Ga.App. 873, 589 S.E.2d 634 (2003).

Sovereign immunity and official immunity are not the same thing and often must be analyzed separately. Primas v. City of Milledgeville, 296 Ga. 584, 769 S.E.2d 326 (2015)

Generally, the task of school officials “to monitor, supervise, and control students is a discretionary action protected by the doctrine of official immunity” are discretionary and thus immune from liability. That includes virtually all issues of supervision of students. See, e.g., Payne v. Twiggs County School Dist., 232 Ga.App. 175501 S.E.2d 550127 Ed. Law Rep. 448 (1998). Qualified immunity protects individual public agents from personal liability for discretionary actions taken within the scope of their official authority, and done without wilfulness, malice, or corruption. Under Georgia law, a public officer or employee may be personally liable only for ministerial acts negligently performed or acts performed with malice or an intent to injure. The rationale for this immunity is to preserve the public employee’s independence of action without fear of lawsuits and to prevent a review of his or her judgment in hindsight.

The main exception to sovereign immunity in Georgia public schools is for injuries while a child is being transported by school bus as the legislature by statute has waived immunity for negligent use of a local government motor vehicle up to a limited dollar amount. Generally, sovereign immunity is waived with regard to injuries or deaths that arise out of negligent use of a covered motor vehicle up to either $500,000 per person and $700,000 per incident, or a higher amount if the local government entity adopts by resolution or ordinance a higher waiver, and either becomes part of an interlocal risk management agency or purchases liability insurance in such higher amount.

A 1991 amendment to Ga. Const. of 1983, Art. I, Sec. II, Par. IX extending sovereign immunity “to the state and all of its departments and agencies” includes county-wide school districts.

This sovereign immunity “can only be waived by an Act of the General Assembly which specifically provides that sovereign immunity is thereby waived and the extent of such waiver.” If a student is injured in a collision with another vehicle, then sovereign immunity is waived to the limited extent provided by statute. Coffee County School District v. King, 229 Ga.App. 143, 493 S.E.2d 563 (1997),

At least three Georgia statutes are involved in this issue.

First, O.C.G.A. § 33-24-51 provides for waiver of governmental liability “for a loss arising out of claims for the negligent use of a covered motor vehicle,” but only “to the extent of the amount of insurance so purchased.”

Second, O.C.G.A. § 36-92-2 provides for waiver of “sovereign immunity of local government entities for a loss arising out of claims for the negligent use of a covered motor vehicle” up to $500,000 for injury or death of any one person in any one occurrence, or up to $700,000 aggregate for two or more people, for incidents after January 1, 2008. Paragraph (b) provides, “The sovereign immunity of local government entities for a loss arising out of claims for the negligent use of a covered motor vehicle is waived only to the extent and in the manner provided in this chapter and only with respect to actions brought in the courts of this state.” It also provides for $50,000 limit on property damage claims.

O.C.G.A. § 36-92-2(d) further provides, “(d) The waiver provided by this chapter shall be increased to the extent that: (1) The governing body of the local governmental entity by resolution or ordinance voluntarily adopts a higher waiver; (2) The local government entity becomes a member of an interlocal risk management agency created pursuant to Chapter 85 of this title to the extent that coverage obtained exceeds the amount of the waiver set forth in this Code section; or (3) The local government entity purchases commercial liability insurance in an amount in excess of the waiver set forth in this Code section.”

Third, O.C.G.A. § 20-2-1090, provides, “The various school boards of the counties, cities, and independent school systems employing school buses are authorized and required to cause policies of insurance to be issued insuring the school children riding therein to and from school against bodily injury or death at any time resulting from an accident or collision in which such buses are involved. The amount of such insurance shall be within the discretion of the respective boards.”

So what happens if a child is injured or killed in a school bus incident that does not arise out of “negligent use of a covered motor vehicle?” This has come up in cases where a child was left for hours on a parked school bus, or was injured in an assault by another student.

Last year, in a case in which a special-needs middle school student was left locked in a school bus parked in the school’s transportation-system parking lot after school for hours, the Georgia Supreme Court has held that O.C.G.A. § 20-2-1090, which authorizes school systems to purchase insurance on school buses, does not waive sovereign immunity of a school district to the extent of such insurance. Fulton County School District v. Jenkins, 347 Ga. App. 448, 820 S.E.2d 75 (2018). Any such waiver of sovereign immunity must be express rather than implied. While other statutes expressly waive sovereign immunity to limited extent, O.C.G.A. § 20-2-1090 does not.

In scenarios arising out of negligent operation of a school bus, sovereign immunity it is waived up to the amounts set forth in O.C.G.A. § 33-24-51.Tift County School Dist. v. Martinez, 331 Ga.App. 423771 S.E.2d 117 (2015).

There have been numerous appellate court decisions deciding whether immunity was waived in specific circumstances. Here are just a few illustrative cases.

Sovereign Immunity waived:

  • Loading at school and the process disembarking from buses until a child reaches the curb. DeKalb County School Dist. v. Allen, 254 Ga.App. 66, 561 S.E.2d 202 (2002).
  • Child was injured attempting to cross an adjacent street just moments after disembarking from the school bus as “use” of the school bus encompassed unloading the children and assuring that they reach a place of safety which might include crossing a street while bus was “standing guard” with it lights flashing and all visual signals operating.  Georgia Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co. v. Greene,174 Ga.App. 120, 329 S.E.2d 204 (1985)

Sovereign Immunity not waived:

  • One student attacked by another student shortly after they exited a school bus, as no collision or accident was involved. Rawls v. Bulloch County School District, 223 Ga.App. 234477 S.E.2d 383 (1996), certiorari denied Feb. 14, 1997. “When a student riding on a school bus suffers an injury that is not proximately caused by an accident or collision in which the bus is involved, such as when the student is injured due to an attack made by a fellow student, OCGA § 20–2–1090 is inapplicable.” Payne v. Twiggs County School Dist., 269 Ga. 361, 362(1), 496 S.E.2d 690 (1998).
  • Child struck while waiting at a bus stop. Brock v. Sumter County School Bd., 246 Ga.App. 815, 542 S.E.2d 547 (2000).
  • Child is struck by a car when walking home from an unauthorized drop-off site on a busy road when the bus had driven two miles away, as “use” of the bus does not encompass the school district’s route planning. Roberts v. Burke County School Dist., 267 Ga. 665, 482 S.E.2d 283 (1997).
  • Grandparents boards bus without authorization to try to discuss with bus driver child’s suspension due to abusive conduct and falls getting off the bus. Hancock v. Bryan County Bd. of Educ., 240 Ga.App. 622, 522 S.E.2d 661 (1992).

If a school bus driver drops off a child at an unapproved, unsafe location, there may be waiver of immunity but not if the school district’s insurance policy defines “use” of the bus so as to exclude this. Roberts v. Burke County School Dist., 267 Ga. 665, 482 S.E.2d 283 (1997).

Thus, in evaluating injury cases arising from school bus operations, a lawyer should consider the following steps:

If you have questions about a serious injury or wrongful death to a school bus passenger in Georgia, contact us at 404-253-7862.

Ken Shigley is a past president of the State Bar of Georgia, past chair of the State Bar’s Tort & Insurance Practice Section, past chair of the Georgia Insurance Law Institute, past chair of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway & Premises Liability Section, and a member of the board of governors of the Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys. He is lead author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation & Practice (Thomson Reuters West, 2010-2018). His law practice is focused on catastrophic injury and wrongful death including those arising from commercial trucking accidents and those involving brainneckbackspinal cordamputation and burn injuries. He is licensed to practice law in Georgia. Representation of clients in others states, which possible, can be undertaken only in strict compliance with the multijurisdictional practice and pro hac vice rules of the other state.