As hundreds of thousands of students across the country are delving into their first year of college, parents may still be uneasy about the number of things that could go wrong. Particularly when their child is studying several hours away or abroad, they may have an expectation that the university will serve as a kind of surrogate parent, seeking to protect students from harm.
It’s true that many colleges do tout their “safety records” as a draw to new students and parents.
But the extent of the protection that is offered may be limited, as we saw recently with the case of Regents v. Super. Ct., recently before the California Court of Appeal Second Appellate District, Division Seven. Of course, this is an out-of-state case and each state may have varying standards, but it’s worth examining when talking about the extent of duty a university owes its students.
This was a case wherein one student was brutally attacked and seriously injured by a fellow student who was mentally ill.
All property owners – including higher education institutions – owe a duty of care to those who are lawfully present. However, premises liability law requires only that the property owner address reasonably foreseeable hazards. That might include third-party criminal attacks, but only in certain circumstances.
In years past, universities used to be held to the “in loco parentis” doctrine, which established a special relationship between the school and the student which required schools stand “in the place of a parent” in protecting students. However as it applies to higher education institutions, that doctrine was largely set aside by state courts in the 1960s. There have been several alternative models that have been adopted since, including the contract model, the constitutional model, the fiduciary model and the unitary theory.
However, the appellate court in California ruled 2-1 that none of this was applicable to the Regents case, and that the college owed no duty of care to protect its student from the violence of another student – even if it had previously treated the violent student for mental illness.
According to court records, the incident happened in a chemistry lab in 2010, when a male student stabbed a female student and slashed her throat in front of their classmates. She sustained severe injuries, but she did survive.
Her lawsuit against the school alleged the university and its professors had received reports that detailed the threatening and disturbing behavior of the assailant (who was later arrested and charged, but found not guilty by reason of insanity).
Prior to the attack, he was diagnosed at the university medical center as having paranoid delusions and suffering from schizophrenia. He was expelled from university housing following a physical fight with another student. However, the school did not notify students of this potential violence.
Trial judge refused the university’s request to dismiss the case, but that decision was appealed and that appeal led to this most recent ruling.
An attorney for plaintiff said parents send their children to top schools expecting they will receive some protection. Instead, he said, “(The school) did nothing.”
Although this outcome is disheartening, there are still many instances wherein students may be able to pursue litigation against a university for failure to protect them from a reasonable harm – whether it’s a third-party assault or a slip-and-fall. It’s best to contact a personal injury lawyer before deciding your next move.
Contact our Carolina personal injury lawyers at Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.
Regents v. Super. Ct., Oct. 7, 2015, California Court of Appeal Second Appellate District, Division Seven
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Canopy Collapses on High School Band, Causing Student Injuries, Oct. 3, 2015, Spartanburg Injury Lawyer Blog