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California Supreme Court Expands Colleges’ Duty to Protect Students

by | April 27, 2018 | Civil Litigation

On March 23, 2018, the Supreme Court of California reversed its previous position and held that “universities have a special relationship with their students and a duty to protect them from foreseeable violence during curricular activities.”

The Facts of the Case

In Regents of the University of California v. Rosen, a student at UCLA, Katherine Rosen alleged that the University and several employees were negligent in failing to protect her from a violent attack by another student, Damon Thompson, during a chemistry lab. The University was aware that Thompson had a history of hallucinations and was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and schizophrenia. Thompson believed other students were harassing him, tormenting him, calling him stupid. He was kicked out of student housing after threatening another student and reporting that voices had advised him to “hurt other students.” University administration, professors, and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) kept a close eye on Thompson. They were well aware that Thompson’s hallucinations were escalating, along with his reactions, in the weeks and days leading up to the day that he suddenly stabbed Rosen in the neck and chest with a kitchen knife.  Rosen survived and sued Thompson, the University, and several employees.

The Legal Issues

Rosen’s claim against the University and its employees turned on whether or not the University had a duty to protect its students from foreseeable harm. Although every person has a duty to act with reasonable care in a given situation, generally “one owes no duty to control the conduct of another, nor to warn those endangered by such conduct.” Davidson v. City of Westminster (1982) 32 Cal.3d 197, 203. “A person who has not created a peril is not liable in tort merely for failure to take affirmative action to assist or protect another unless there is some relationship between them which gives rise to a duty to act.” Williams v. State of California (1983) 34 Cal.3d 18, 23.  So Rosen’s claim raised the question of whether the University had such a “special relationship” with its students.

A special relationship, like parent-child, with the person who poses a risk can create a duty to attempt to control the person’s conduct. Alternatively, a special relationship, like innkeeper-guest, with the potential victim can create a duty to warn and protect the potential victim. Rosen alleged that the University was obligated both to attempt to control Thompson and to warn and protect other students who were Thompson’s potential victims.

The California Supreme Court focused only on the latter and found that the college-student relationship was sufficiently similar to other recognized special relationships, such as landlord to tenant, business owner to invited guest, an employer to employees, a guard to those in custody, and a school to its students. However, the duty owed to an elementary student differed vastly from the duty owed to a college student. Some state courts take the position that colleges owe no duty of care to their students, while others recognize a limited duty.

California – Previously a “No Duty” State (Mostly)

The state of California has previously recognized that a college has a duty to maintain safe premises but resisted finding a broader duty to protect its students.  Appellate courts had found that a college owes a duty to students “who are on school grounds to supervise them and to enforce rules and regulations necessary for their protection,” but there was no duty to prevent or monitor on-campus drinking or safeguard students from the dangers of alcohol use. Baldwin v. Zoradi, (1981) 123 Cal.App.3d 275.  One court even dismissed a case by a student who was raped by fellow students after a dormitory party.  Tanja H. v. Regents of University of California (1991) 228 Cal.App.3d 434.

California courts have sometimes recognized a duty in cases not involving alcohol. For example, in Peterson v. San Francisco Community College Dist. (1984) 36 Cal.3d 799, a student was raped in a campus parking structure and the college was aware of similar assaults in the same area. The court held that the college had a duty to warn students of known dangers posed by criminals on campus, but the college was also immune from liability for failing to provide adequate police protection. California courts have previously imposed a duty of care on a high school to protect students from sexual harassment by staff, but the court linked this duty to “the mandatory character of school attendance and the comprehensive control over students exercised by school personnel.” Williams v. State of California (1983) 34 Cal.3d 18.

Expanding the Duty a College Owes Its Students

In Rosen’s case, the California Supreme Court, joining a similar trend occurring in other states, expanded the duty previously owed by colleges to their students: “Considering the unique features of the college environment, we conclude postsecondary schools do have a special relationship with students while they are engaged in activities that are part of the school’s curriculum or closely related to its delivery of educational services.” However, the Court noted that the duty remains quite limited: “many aspects of a modern college student’s life are, quite properly, beyond the institution’s control,” and “[c]olleges are in a special relationship with their enrolled students only in the context of school-sponsored activities over which the college has some measure of control.”

A duty was appropriate in Rosen’s case because class attendance is mandatory and the incident occurred in a chemistry lab while class was in session. Additionally, the risk of harm posed by Thompson was uniquely foreseeable because of his extensive history of incidents reported to the University. Although courts must consider many factors in deciding whether to impose a duty in any particular instance, this case takes the important step of opening the door for courts to at least balance those factors.  Students who are injured on campus by foreseeable violence now have increased rights to pursue civil litigation cases when their college could have and should have warned or protected them. Sanford Heisler Sharp has the trial experience to help you pursue those rights if you or your loved one is injured by violence on a college campus.