KBS Reference Desk: Interstate Travel Liability and Travel Forms Best Practices

Q:        Our eighth graders typically take a trip to Washington D.C. over Spring Break. We recently hired a new principal, and she is concerned about liability. Are there legal issues we should be considering for school-sponsored trips where we take students out of state?

 A:        Yes. The immunity provided to public school districts by the Texas legislature is unique and may not be mirrored in other states. Consideration should be given to the creation of detailed waiver and release forms, inclusive of choice of law provisions, before traveling across state lines with students and employee chaperones.

Public school districts in Texas are entitled to governmental immunity, which protects them from liabilities resulting from most personal injury and property damage claims. Such protections date back to Anglo-Saxon times and the mindset that “the King can do no wrong.” Because not all states recognize another’s immunity, liability issues may arise when students travel outside of Texas on school-sponsored trips. To protect themselves, school districts should have their students’ parent or guardian sign detailed travel forms prior to departure, which, at a minimum, should include a general release, a choice of law clause and a medical authorization. Any student 18 or older should sign the document as well.

Primarily, a general release should include language acknowledging that the parent or guardian accepts responsibility for any loss, damage, or injury to their student or property while traveling, thereby “releasing” the school district and its employees from all claims “for loss, damage, or injury to the student or their property.” It is best if this language is preceded by identification of key details regarding the scope of the trip (i.e., dates, destination, etc.) and explanation of the school’s involvement with the trip, such that the scope of the release is fixed.

Equally important to a release of liability is the parent’s agreement that Texas law will govern any dispute.  Depending on the state where the injury or property damage occurs, a parent/plaintiff may be able to “choose” which state’s law to apply. Because Texas immunity laws are so strong, a parent would likely elect to choose the law of the state where the accident or injury occurred, rather than Texas, so that the parent receives a greater financial reward. As such, travel forms should include a choice of law provision whereby the parent or guardian expressly acknowledges and agrees that any claims or issues arising from student illness or injury, or damage or loss of property will be governed by and under Texas laws.

As illness or injury is often times inevitable, travel forms should include a medical authorization, which will permit school personnel and chaperones to seek emergency medical care for a student if necessary. The authorization should also include language indicating that the parent or guardian acknowledges that they will accept financial responsibility for any medical costs associated with their student’s care should they be injured or become ill during the trip. This section should require the parent to identify personal health insurance information, which will most likely be required by any hospital or health care provider prior to the rendering of services. Importantly, all policy provisions related to administration of medication will continue to apply when traveling on school-sponsored trips. As such, the medical authorization form should identify all over-the-counter medications a student is permitted to receive, with permission for the employee chaperones to administer as directed on the bottle. With regard to prescription medication, the form should require the parent to identify the medication by name and dosage and advise the parent that the medication must be presented in its original (prescription) container at the time of departure, or a school employee is prohibited from administering. School districts should also require parents and guardians to list on the form their student’s allergies, food restrictions, and other medical conditions that school personnel and chaperones should be aware of during the trip. This will allow the sponsor to work with the parent prior to the trip to ensure alternatives are available.

Lastly, note that the release and choice of law language included in travel forms protect the school district from claims brought by a parent or student only. When lawsuits are filed against the school district by citizens of other states, such as in automobile accidents or when damage is caused to a hotel room, the school district will be subject to the laws of that state. As such, careful consideration should be made to ensure out of state trips are meticulously planned, with adequate chaperones, clear communication to students of expectations and discussion with the District’s insurance carrier prior to departure to confirm scope of coverage.

Look to board policies FFAC and FMG for additional information regarding student travel. Should you have specific questions concerning liability resulting from interstate school-sponsored student trips or seek assistance with development of travel related release forms, consult your local school attorney.

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