Saturday, October 24, 2015

California court of appeals reaffirms view that universities do not have a duty to protect adult students from violent acts of other students

A couple of weeks ago, a California appeals court issued an opinion (with one dissenting judge) reaffirming the generally accepted view that state public colleges and universities do not have a general duty to protect adult students from violent acts by other students.  Obviously, with so many frequent stories of violence on college campuses, the question of whether an institution of higher education can be liable is important and timely. The case is called Regents of the University of California v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County and you can read the opinion here

The case involved a claim by a former student at the University of California at Los Angeles who in 2009 was stabbed by a fellow student in a chemistry lab. The suit charged that UCLA didn't do enough to protect students, even as it learned of the serious mental health issues faced by the student who committed the stabbing.

Finding that there is no general duty to help the court ruled that "While colleges and universities may properly adopt policies and provide student services that reduce the likelihood such incidents will occur on their campuses, they are not liable for the criminal wrongdoing of mentally ill third parties, regardless of whether such conduct might be in some sense foreseeable."

This approach is not surprising and appears to be the majority view on the issue, whether because the conduct of the actor is considered a superseding cause or whether because of the long standing (although often criticized) rule that there is no duty to help.

The dissenting opinion, however, argued that the University should be subject to liability because it had adopted a duty to help.  The dissenting judge quoted from university materials distributed to students and parents that included statements like "Welcome to one of the most secure campuses in the country."  The dissenting judge also pointed out that "[o]ther promotional materials assure prospective students and their families that ‘UCLA is committed to maintaining a safe and respectful learning environment and takes an unwavering stand against any act that violates the True Bruin values.’"  Based on these statements, the dissenting judge argued, parents and students are entitled to expect that the university would provide better safety measures.

The dissenting judge also argued that the university could be subject to liability under the exception to the no duty rule based on "special relationships."  Traditionally limited to common carriers or innkeepers, courts in many jurisdictions have disagreed on whether to expand the notion of a special relationship to include other types of relationships.  Again, many have held that the relationship between a university and its adult students should not be included within the exception, even if that of an elementary school and its students has been.  Usually, the fact that students in an elementary school are minors who are not entirely equipped to defend themselves and who are not as mature as adults justifies the distinction.

The dissenting judge, however, thought that this distinction should not be given as much weight as it has in the past saying that "I would find such a special relationship exists between a college and its enrolled students, at least when the student is in a classroom under the direct supervision of an instructor..."  In such cases, the dissenting judge would find that "the school has a duty to take reasonable steps to keep its classrooms safe from foreseeable threats of violence."

Inside Higher Ed has more on the story here.

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