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California Colleges May Not Have a Duty to Protect Students, Court Rules

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By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on October 13, 2015 3:57 PM

A California Appeals Court just reaffirmed a rule that California colleges and universities do not owe a general duty to their student body to protect them from the violent acts of other students. It found that UCLA student, Katherine Rosen, was owed no duty by the university to ensure her safety from a paranoid, knife wielding fellow student.

The ruling was handed down almost six years to the day of the attack in question. The appeals court based its decision on California case law and not federal law. It also comes amidst increased debate all generally concerned about the proper role of university administrators regarding student behavior and safety.

Premise Liability

California law, like most other jurisdictions, codifies a common law principle that landowners are obligated to ensure some measure of safety to persons on their land. The most standard is that of the business invitee. In plain English, a business is most likely to be found liable for a person's injuries if that person was on the premise for the business benefit of the landowner.

Rosen's Argument

In 2009, Katherine Rosen was suddenly attacked by Damon Thompson while the two of them stood outside the chemistry lab in UCLA's Young Hall. Rosen was repeatedly stabbed and suffered throat injuries. In her complaint, Rosen included a number of arguments including California's version of the above summarized legal principle.

UCLA's Appeal

On Appeal, the court made it clear that California routinely recognized carve-outs for universities with regards to premise liability. It agreed that California does generally find liability in injury cases involving young students up to high school. However, the majority distinguished the applicable with past cases and noted that a key factor for liability attaching in previous cases was the mandatory attendance of the attendees.

In other words, the court basically said, "It was your choice to attend college, so it's your problem." Here, the court hammered in the last nail on in loco parentis in California in a very deliberate way.

The record showed that the attacking student, Damon Thompson, had a dossier that was littered with incident after incident -- but all apparently stopping short of physical violence. But even this doesn't seem to be dispositive in the appeals court's decision, which relied squarely on what it took to be well-settled California law as applied to colleges and universities.

The dissent, however, rightfully pointed out that if liability should attach in cases where injury occurs during a sporting event (see Avila vs. Citrus Comm. Col. (2006)), then surely some duty should attach where an injury takes place inside of a building owned by the university. Seems to make sense.

Conflicted Message

The court's decision makes some aspects of premise liability clear and other aspects -- completely murky. For one, it sends the message that universities and colleges can breathe easier. If a student slashes another student's throat in one of your buildings? No problem -- it's not our fault. But then what does that say about California's famous words in Tarasoff vs. Regents of University of California: "The protective privilege (of private communication) ends where the public peril begins"?

In the interim, the grand take-away is that nothing has particularly changed for California colleges and universities. If you're a student attending a California institution of higher education, you'd better hope that your attacker has deep pockets and isn't insane.

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