The family of Riley Franz, a student who was shot in the neck at Oxford High School last week, is suing the school district and school officials in Oxford, Mich., for $100 million, saying they failed to prevent the mass shooting that killed four students and injured seven people, despite multiple warnings and signs for concern. More on the story here.
The case will hinge on whether the court recognizes that the school had a duty to each student and whether the duty extends to protecting against intentional and criminal conduct.
The general common law does not recognize a duty to help or to control the conduct of others. However, over time, courts and the Restatement of Torts have recognized limited duties in certain circumstances. Some of the most commonly accepted exceptions to the general rule are based on the existence of a special relationship between the person alleged to have a duty to help and the person in need of help. Traditionally, a special relationship exists when one party depends on the other for protection and the other party has the ability to provide the needed protection. For this reason, whether a relationship constitutes a special relationship which creates a duty to help or protect has usually been interpreted narrowly. In fact, for a long time the concept was limited to the relationship between common carriers and their passengers, and between innkeepers and their guests. However, for a variety of reasons, the notion of special relationships has been extended to include other types of relationships such as those between landlords and tenants, and commercial establishments and their customers.
Likewise, over the years, jurisdictions have shifted their approach on whether schools have a special relationship with their students. The Restatement (Third) now includes the relationship between a school and its students as one that gives rise to a duty to help. However, because there are many different types of schools, whose students also vary in terms of age and maturity, the Restatement recognizes that there must be differences in analysis depending on whether the case involves elementary schools or high schools, as opposed to colleges and universities. As it explains in a comment to the section that recognizes duties based on special relationships, "because of the wide range of students to which it is applicable, what constitutes reasonable care is contextual–the extent and type of supervision required of young elementary–school pupils is substantially different from reasonable care for college students."
Thus, according to this approach, while a school does not have an automatic, broad duty to protect students, certain duties may be triggered under unique circumstances if there is a special relationship between the institution and an individual based on the foreseeability of harm.
This apparent shift toward imposing a limited duty toward students is not necessarily new, but it seems to be broadening, and given the rising tide of gun violence in schools, it is an important issue for schools of all levels.
I once wrote an article on the possible duty of a college or university to its students. You can read it here.