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Court: Colleges Owe Duty of Care to Protect Students

Amid ongoing incidents of violence at schools and colleges, the California Supreme Court has ruled that colleges DO owe their students a duty of care to protect them from foreseeable violence during curricular activities. This responsibility, the court ruled, was owing to the power dynamic between schools and students, which amounts to a “special relationship.”

This was a reversal of a previous appellate court decision, which held 2 to 1 that universities and colleges had no general legal obligation to protect adult students from the criminal actions of other students.

The case involves a 20-year-old pre-med student who was viciously attacked with a knife in a chemistry classroom by a fellow University of California at Los Angeles student. Her attacker had previously been diagnosed with paranoid delusions and possible schizophrenia and was undergoing outpatient treatment at the university at the time of the incident. He was later found not guilty by reason of insanity. Plaintiff’s argument against the university was the school breached its duty of care by failing to take reasonable steps to protect her from foreseeable violence.

As noted in state supreme court records, the auditory hallucinations of the UCLA student who attacked plaintiff reportedly involved hearing other students in his classroom and dormitory criticizing him. He’d transferred to the school for the 2008 fall semester and almost immediately, there were reports of conflicts with other students in his classroom and residence all. At one point, he emailed a history professor and accused the teacher of calling him “crazy” and “troubled” – something the professor reportedly had never said. The correspondence was forwarded to the department chair, who responded by asking the professor to “calm” the student and determine whether he was genuinely paranoid and/ or a potential threat.

The student then sent a letter to the dean, complaining of mistreatment from fellow students, unwanted sexual advances from female students, eavesdropping on his phone calls, sexual rumors spread about him and disruptions in his sleep from being called “stupid.” He told the dean that if these problems weren’t addressed, it would “escalate to a more serious situation.” He was moved out of his dorm. There continued to be reports of odd behavior with the student. The student was encouraged to seek help, but he initially refused. At his new dorm, he told his resident director there were voices coming through the walls, taunting him. He also said he had called his father and was told to “hurt the other residents.” Police were called, but no weapon was found.

A psychiatric evaluation was ordered. He ultimately agreed to take low-dose antipsychotic medication and start an outpatient treatment plan. He stopped taking it, a fact administrators knew, even though he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

In the spring, he admitted to his school psychiatrist that he had thoughts of harming others. The psychiatrist urged him to submit to voluntary hospitalization, but he refused, though he did agree to resume taking his medications. He attended several more sessions and then stopped.

In June 2009, the student was expelled from student housing after he threatened another resident in his dorm for allegedly making too much noise and told him it was his “last warning.”

The following fall semester, he returned to school and saw the psychologist, telling her he still heard voices. A teaching assistant in the chemistry lab wrote professors and administrators in October to notify of “another incident” with the student, as he repeatedly accused other students of calling him “stupid.” One of those he accused worked next to him in the laboratory – and she was ultimately the victim of his stabbing, which was carried out without provocation or warning as she was kneeling to place items in a drawer. Her injuries were life-threatening, but she did ultimately survive.

Plaintiff filed a personal injury lawsuit against attacker, but also the university and several of its employees. She alleged the school had a special relationship to her as an enrolled student to take reasonable protective measures to ensure her safety against violent acts that were reasonably foreseeable. In this case, she asserted, the school knew of this man’s “dangerous propensities,” yet failed to warn or protect her.

The school sought summary judgment on grounds it had no duty to protect her, but that even if it did, that duty was not breached but even if it was, the school was immune from liability as a government entity. The trial court denied this request, but the appellate court reversed.

In reversing the appellate court’s ruling, the court looked to the decisions of other state supreme courts on similar issues. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court for instance was one of the first to hold colleges have a duty to protect their students against criminal attacks back 1983. Numerous other state high courts (including Florida’s in the 2000 ruling in Nova Southeastern University v. Gross) have reached the same or similar conclusions about schools owing a duty of care to students.

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Additional Resources:

Regents of University of California v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, March 22, 2018, California Supreme Court

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Florida School Shooting Victims Mull Lawsuit Against Authorities, March 5, 2018, Orlando Personal Injury Attorney Blog

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