Q: We have our annual Fall Festival coming up, with one of the most popular attractions being our hay ride. We plan to have our Ag Teacher driving his tractor and pulling a trailer with groups of 10-15 kids at a time. A new board member has started asking questions about liability. Is this activity legally advisable?
A: Probably not. The hay ride will most likely be considered “use or operation of a motor vehicle,” as that term is used in the Texas Tort Claims Act, thereby subjecting the school district to potential liability for any injuries or damages stemming from negligence of the driver. We would recommend seeking outside sponsorship of the event by another organization, such as a PTA group, who should provide the driver and the tractor.
Sovereign immunity insulates public school districts and their employees from liability for almost all personal injury and property damage claims. One important statutory exception, known commonly as the Texas Tort Claims Act (TTCA), waives immunity for accidents and injuries that occur as the result of a school district employee’s negligent “use or operation of a motor vehicle.” Monetary damages are capped at $100,000 per plaintiff for personal injury, capped at $300,000 per incident, and $100,000 per incident for property damage. Because the tractor in the above scenario is a motor vehicle being driven by a school district employee, at a school sponsored event, it is almost certain that the school would be named in any litigation that followed should an accident or injury occur while on the hay ride.
To avoid risk involved with District employees operating motor vehicles in connection with school activities, it is generally recommended that the school district seek sponsorship of the event by a PTA or other similar organization. Sponsorship by an outside group will shift the liability away from the District, and put the onus on the PTA group to address potential liability, which may include obtaining parent permission slips or waivers prior to letting minors participate in the hay ride. To document outside sponsorship and sufficiently distant the school district, it is critical that all publications advertising the event reflect the identity of the sponsoring organization and that the organization completes your district’s Facilities Use Agreement, acknowledging their awareness of policies and procedures concerning use of District property, and that they remit rental fees as applicable. The Facility Use Agreement could then be used as an exhibit in litigation on behalf of the school district when arguing against application of the TTCA waiver. As this issue can be extremely fact specific, any questions you have regarding your District’s event or liability in general, should be addressed with your school district’s attorney.