As readers of this blog know, the general common law did not recognize a duty to help or to control the conduct of others. However, over time, courts (and eventually the Restatement) recognized limited duties in certain circumstances. One of the most commonly accepted of these exceptions to the general rule is based on the existence of a special relationship.
Traditionally, a special relationship exists when a person is dependent on the other for safety. Whether a relationship constitutes a special relationship which creates a duty to help, or protect, has usually been interpreted narrowly and for a long time was limited to the relationship between common carriers and their passengers and innkeepers and their guests. However, some jurisdictions (and the Restatement) have considered extending the notion of special relationships to include other circumstances including the relationships between landlords and tenants, and commercial establishments and their customers.
As you would expect, whether schools have a special relationship with their students is a common question. Because of the types of schools and ages of the students, the analysis is different if the case involves elementary schools or high schools, as opposed to colleges and universities.
There are lots of cases out there related to injuries suffered by students in college campuses, but not all jurisdictions have decided whether the schools have a duty to help or protect the students based on the relationship between the school and the student.
You may remember from your law school days a case called Hegel v Langsam used by many textbooks to illustrate the generally accepted rule that universities do not have a general duty to protect students. Yet, according to some, there seems to be a trend to recognize (or impose) a duty in recent times.
Now we can add Massachusetts and California to the list of states that have decided the issue in favor of imposing a limited duty on the university.
Last December I wrote about a case brought against MIT that asked whether the university should be held responsible in a wrongful death claim based on the fact that a student took his own lives. You can read my initial comments about the case here.
The student’s family sued, claiming his death was preventable and that the school had a legal duty to use reasonable care to protect him from harm. MIT replied that the school wasn’t aware of the severity of the student’s condition and that he was treated by outside professionals, none of whom thought the student was a risk to himself.
I just read that the Supreme Court of Massachusetts issued its opinion yesterday. I have not read the opinion itself, so I can't comment in detail but from what I have read, the court found that a university has a duty to take action if it is aware that a student has attempted, or has threatened, to commit suicide while enrolled at the university. I do not know of any other cases that have found that universities have a duty to prevent suicides.
Meanwhile, in California, the Supreme Court decided back in March, that colleges and universities are in a special relationship with their enrolled students which creates a limited duty to help, and protect, during school-sponsored activities over which the college has some measure of control.
The case is called The Regents of the Univ. of California v. Superior Court (decided March 22, 2018). This one I have read and here is a summary:
The facts are long and detailed, but the short version of the story is that over more than a semester a certain UCLA student suffered from hallucinations and other mental health issues and behaved erratically and threateningly toward other students. The problematic behavior was known to other students, TAs, professors, and members of the administration of the university. The administration took action to help the students involved, including moving the problematic student off his dorm, and providing counseling. The student was cooperative at times, but not consistently. Sometimes he attended counseling, sometimes he did not. Sometimes he took medication, sometimes he did not, and so on.
Again, there are more details to the story, but to make it short, one day at the end of class in a a science lab, the student unexpectedly and without provocation attacked another student (the plaintiff in the case) with a knife, causing her severe injuries.
The plaintiff sued the attacker and UCLA. Against UCLA, she argued that the university owed her several duties: (1) a duty to take reasonable protective measures to ensure her safety against violent attacks and otherwise protect her from reasonable foreseeable criminal conduct; (2) a duty to warn her as to such reasonable foreseeable criminal conduct on its campus and in its buildings; and, (3) a duty to control the reasonably foreseeable wrongful acts of third parties/other students. In the alternative, she argued that even if UCLA did not owe those duties to her based on the special relationship, UCLA had assumed a duty of care by undertaking to provide campus-wide security. (Because the court found that UCLA did owe a duty based on the special relationship, this last argument was not addressed.)
UCLA filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that colleges have no duty to protect their adult students from criminal acts but the Trial Court denied it. On appeal, a divided panel of the Court of Appeal reversed. The dissenting judge opined that colleges have a special relationship with their enrolled students, “at least when the student is in a classroom under the direct supervision of an instructor” and that, therefore, colleges have duty to protect against foreseeable threats of violence in classroom.
The plaintiffs appealed and the state supreme court agreed with the dissenting judge holding that there is a duty to protect, although there is no duty to control.
The Court's opinion starts by reviewing the general rule and the exceptions to the notion of a duty to help. Thus, the court is clear that there is no duty to help unless the plaintiff can establish that the defendant had a special relationship toward the plaintiff that justifies imposing a duty on the defendant. Such a relationship would be characterized by dependency and control: one party depends on the other for protection and the other has the ability to provide control over that needed protection. The court also explains even if there is a duty, the duty must be limited. It can't be a duty owed to the public at large; it is owed only to those to whom the special relationship applies.
With this as the general background, the court compared the circumstances of the case to those of cases involving high schools because it has already been decided that high school do have a duty to protect students.
The court admitted that there are differences between high schools and colleges but decided the relationship between a university and its students still justifies finding that a duty is owed.
The cases involving high schools have held that there is duty owed because the relationship between the school and the students is characterized by mandatory character of school attendance and comprehensive control over students exercised by school personnel. Even though in the college setting, the students have more freedom and are usually not minors, the court found that students are still somewhat vulnerable because, although they are not minors, they are still learning how to navigate the world as adults and are, therefore, dependent on their college communities to provide structure, guidance, and a safe learning environment.
Given this conclusion, and the fact that colleges have superior control over the college community environment and the ability to protect students, including by monitoring and disciplining them if necessary, the court concluded that it is justified to find that colleges have a special relationship with their students.
However, the fact that there is a special relationship does not mean there is a duty to everyone or to eliminate all risks. The court concluded that colleges are in a special relationship with their enrolled students only, and limited to the context of school-sponsored activities over which the college has some measure of control. The court also noted that this duty is not a duty to prevent violence, which would be impossible to discharge. It is a duty to take reasonable steps to protect students when the university becomes aware of a foreseeable threat to their safety.
Applying its conclusions to the facts of the case, the court remanded the case for the Court of Appeal to decide whether triable issues of material fact remain on the questions of breach of the duty (alerting to the fact that the appropriate standard of care for judging reasonableness of university’s actions remains an open question, which parties are free to litigate on remand.)
Thus, UCLA lost the argument on whether the court should impose a duty, but it is possible that UCLA will not be liable if it is determined that it did not breach the duty.
In a separate Concurring Opinion, one of the justices makes a very good point: the language used by the court may be a bit too broad.
For a few reasons, this justice did not join the majority opinion insofar as it would extend the duty beyond the classroom, to encompass more broadly “curricular activities” and activities “closely related to [the] delivery of educational services.” First, there is no need to decide if the duty extends beyond the classroom, because the attack in this case occurred in a classroom. Second, the extent of a university’s control in a non-classroom setting varies considerably because activities outside the classroom differ in potentially significant ways. And, third, the majority’s conclusion can create confusion because it offers no guidance as to which non-classroom activities qualify as either “curricular” or “closely related to [the] delivery of educational services” or what factors are relevant to this determination.