- Michigan Fraternities Sever Ties With University
- Update on USC Deferred Recruitment Case
- House Democrats Propose New Legislation
- No More Women's Groups at Harvard
- Interesting Settlement from Utah State
- Indiana District Court Denies MSJ in Sexual Assault Case
- Guilty Pleas at Penn State
- Two High Courts Address "special duty" to Students
- Lawsuit Filed by Gruver Family
Newsletter > September 2018 > "Two High Courts Address “special duty” to Students"
Two High Courts Address “special duty” to Students
The Supreme Courts of two states earlier this year each addressed the issue of a college’s “special duty” to protect its students.
The Regents of the University of California, et. al. vs. the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, et. al. 413 P3rd 656 (Cal. 2018) involved two UCLA students. One had a history of mental health challenges, hearing voices, threatening other students and ultimately attacking and stabbing a fellow student in a University chemistry laboratory causing serious life-threatening injuries. The injured student sued UCLA claiming that the University “owed her a duty of care because colleges have a special relationship with students in the classroom, based on their supervisory duties and the student’s status as a business invitee”.
The second case, Dzung Duy Nguyen vs. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 479 MASS 436 (Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, 2018), involved the suicide of a student in a Ph.D. program who suffered from a series of mental and other medical issues. He ultimately jumped to his death from a University building. This case also involved the question of Two High Courts Address “special duty” to Students September 2018 Fraternal Law 2 whether or not a university owed a special duty to a student which would require it to take reasonable measures to prevent his suicide.
Both Courts ended up concluding that under certain specified, limited circumstances, universities have a special relationship with their students and were obligated to take steps to prevent injuries to their students or, in the case of threatened suicides, to prevent self-harm.
The California Court specifically recognized that colleges do have a special relationship with their students, not “with the world at large, but only with their enrolled students”. In recognizing that special relationship, the Court clearly pointed out that liability under that relationship is limited. “It extends to activities that are tied to the school’s curriculum but not to student behavior over which the university has no significant degree of control.”
The violent knife attack occurred in the chemistry laboratory and the Court points out that “education is at the core of a college’s mission and the classroom is the quintessential setting for curricular activities.” The California Supreme Court set out several factors that must be considered in order to determine whether or not liability attaches to the University even in situations where the special relationship exists. The factors enumerated included the foreseeability of harm; the degree of certainty that Plaintiff was injured; the closeness of connection between Defendant’s conduct and the injury suffered; the moral blame attached to the Defendant’s conduct; a policy of preventing future harm; the burden of preventing the harm; and “the availability, cost and prevalence of insurance for the risk involved”.
The Court was clear in saying that “Colleges are not the ultimate insurers of all student safety. We simply hold that they have a duty to act with reasonable care when aware of a foreseeable threat of violence in a curricular setting. Reasonable care will vary under the circumstances of each case.”
In the MIT case, the Court upheld the Summary Judgment in favor of the University but did so only after determining that:
“A University has a special relationship with a student and a corresponding duty to take reasonable measures to prevent his or her suicide in the following circumstances. Where a university has actual knowledge of a student’s suicide attempt that occurred while enrolled at the university or recently before matriculation or of a student’s stated plans or intentions to commit suicide, the university has a duty to take reasonable measures under the circumstances to protect the student from self-harm.”
In essence, the Court made it clear that it viewed the University’s obligation as a limited duty which “is created only by actual knowledge of a student’s suicide attempt. . . or of a student’s stated plans or intentions to commit suicide”. The Court further clarified the duty “to initiating the university’s suicide prevention protocol and if the school has no such protocol, arranging for clinical care by trained medical professionals or, if such care is refused, alerting the student’s emergency contact.” The Court also indicated that the duty is “time bound. Medical professionals may, for example, conclude that the student is no longer a suicide risk and no further care or counseling is required”.
Carefully reviewing all of the facts, the Court found that there was no record of the student having attempted suicide while at MIT, and on repeated occasions he denied University assistance. The Court also discussed at some length what the University did do to provide assistance to the student. As a result of all of the facts, the Court found that MIT and its University Defendants had not breached the special duty to the student and upheld the summary judgment in favor of the University defendants.
How likely that the same legal theories could be applied to a fraternity or sorority chapter is not clear. It is important to note that in both cases, the Court’s significantly limited the duty that a college or university has to its students. In California, clearly saying that special duty exists only when a student is in curricular activities. In Massachusetts, the special duty to act with regard to suicide threats existed only when there was certain knowledge of a recent history of attempts or a current threat of a suicide or other specific circumstances applied.
While it is far from certain that the special duties found to be applied to colleges and universities with regard to their students would extend to the obligations of fraternities or sororities and their chapters, if there is knowledge that a member may be a threat to harm themselves, it is far better to act in a reasonable way than to ignore that threat. A member who shares their plans or thought about suicide should be caringly advised to seek professional assistance. They should be given information about the university counseling office. If a member refuses such advice and still appears to be a threat to self-harm, chapter officials or advisors should themselves consult with university counseling officials for assistance. As the Court in the Massachusetts case provided, alerting the member’s emergency contact (usually a parent) may also be a valuable step.
Documenting that such reasonable and appropriate steps were taken would, even if a tragedy did occur and a court would consider applying the special relationship standards discussed in these cases, likely produce the same result as the Massachusetts case where a Motion for Summary Judgment in favor of MIT and its officials was granted and upheld.