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California Supreme Court Ruling Raises Questions on Student Safety

Amy Donovan 4/18/2018
Amy Donovan

A recent ruling by the California Supreme Court has expanded the duty to protect their students from foreseeable violence in secondary schools to the college and university level. Colleges and universities are not usually held liable for the criminal acts of their students. However, the law recognizes a duty to control, warn, or protect when a defendant has a “special relationship” with a foreseeably dangerous person. This decision came out of a 2009 case of a student-on-student assault during a chemistry lab at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Damon Thompson, the student who attacked Katherine Rosen during the class, had a history of experiencing auditory hallucinations, of which campus mental health services personnel were aware. He complained to university administrators and professors several times of other students in the classroom and dormitory criticizing him, and he was expelled from university housing for assaulting another student. Rosen sued the university and several of its employees for negligence, arguing they failed to protect her from Thompson’s foreseeable violent conduct.

Rosen’s complaint alleged that UCLA had a special relationship with her as an enrolled student, which included a duty “to take reasonable protective measures to ensure her safety against violent attacks and otherwise protect her from reasonable foreseeable criminal conduct, to warn her as to such reasonable foreseeable criminal conduct on its campus and in its buildings.” The Court agreed with this argument that colleges and universities have this duty to protect or warn students within the curricular setting.

The California Supreme Court’s ruling includes limitations that raise questions on how this decision would be applied in other cases: “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. Moreover, some assaults may be unavoidable despite a college’s best efforts to prevent them. Courts and juries should be cautioned to avoid judging liability based on hindsight.”

For California colleges and universities, many questions remain. The court did not define “curricular setting,” so further litigation will define the boundaries over which colleges and universities are expected to have this duty. The Court also noted that, in an appropriate case, the duty may be fulfilled if adequate warnings are provided to the students at risk. However, the specifics were not spelled out in the decision. The Court has sent the case back to the lower court to determine whether UCLA breached its duty to Ms. Rosen and the damages she suffered. The ultimate decision regarding whether UCLA breached its duty to Rosen will be instructive on how colleges and universities are expected to carry out this duty to protect students.

We have discussed this case in greater detail in our recent Briefing. We will be monitoring this issue carefully as it develops.