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Legal Lessons on Student Suicides and Assaults: A Short Guide for College and University Presidents, Administrators and Trustees: Part 1

Recent decisions by the highest courts of two states, California and Massachusetts, offer important guidance as to when a college or university can be held liable for money damages when one student harms another student by an assault, or harms themself by committing suicide.

Although these cases come from states whose courts are among the most progressive in the country, college administrators and trustees in other states should not assume that they can ignore the lessons of these cases just because their own institutions are located in a “red” jurisdiction.

The courts in both cases acknowledge that, since the mid-1970s, societal and legal trends have moved away from imposing liability on educational institutions based on the old theory that the institution stands “in loco parentis” to its students.  Those students, the courts further acknowledge, are mostly adults, with their own rights and privileges in the eyes of the law, as well as having adult responsibilities to and for themselves and to others. Despite this trend, both recent cases outline the factual settings in which the courts in their states nonetheless will hold a college or university legally responsible for a student’s self-harm or harm to another student.

Liability for Harm to Others

In the California case (Regents of the University of California v. Rosen), a student with an elaborate history of hearing voices in his head — often other students criticizing him — seriously stabbed another student in a chemistry lab.  In the year leading up to the assault, multiple UCLA administrators, mental health professionals and interview teams had been told by the assailant about his “voices” and had made a diagnosis of mental illness based on these auditory hallucinations.  Although the assailant had repeatedly said that he would not hurt another student, UCLA administrators had facilitated at least two residence moves and repeatedly tried to get him to avail himself of both therapy and medication.

The California lower court had thrown out the injured student’s lawsuit, but the California Supreme Court reinstated the case, finding that UCLA owed a duty of care to its students during “curricular activities,” and that the question of whether the school had in fact breached that duty, given the substantial number of UCLA personnel who knew about the serious mental illness of the student who committed the assault, would have to be determined by the lower court at trial.

In this California case, a predictably large number of other educational institutions made “Friends of the Court” submissions to argue that if the Court did decide there was a duty on the part of UCLA to keep its students safe from a deranged fellow student, thereafter all colleges and universities would be quick to reject students who presented any profile or history of mental illness, or, having admitted them, would promptly remove them after learning about their problems.

The California Supreme Court rejected this argument, a decision which arguably leads to a sort of Hobson’s Choice:  if a student shows signs of serious, let alone potentially dangerous mental illness, a university or college will have to decide whether to leave the student in place and thereafter risk monetary liability for any harm which might occur to another student  (at least during “curricular activities”), or, alternatively, expel the mentally disturbed student (or refuse admission to any applicant with a troubling history of mental illness) and risk being sued by the rejected student on, among other possible legal theories, the grounds that the school’s action violated the American with Disabilities Act.  Of course, the various state and Federal laws subjecting student health issues to privacy protection may lessen or eliminate the concern that schools will no longer admit any student with documented mental health issues, but this simply may shift the focus to what the university learns about the student after he or she arrives on campus.

Given such a choice, I suspect that any student who repeatedly reports hearing troublesome imaginary voices from other students or faculty is going to get a one-way ticket home.

The California decision does have certain explicit limitations:

1. If the college or university doesn’t know about the mental health problems of a particular student, there can be no duty or liability on the part of the institution.

2. The scope of the school’s duty to protect other students as articulated by the California Supreme Court is limited to “curricular activities.”  Indeed, one of the California judges, in a concurring opinion, stated his belief that “curricular activities” is too vague; that judge would have limited the duty only to the classroom setting, which is where the assault in the case actually took place.

So if the deranged student had stabbed another student on a date, presumably the school’s duty would not exist.  But what is a “curricular activity”? A non-credit dance class sponsored by the college? Attendance at a school-sponsored football game?  Walking from one required class to another? Only time, and further legal decisions, will answer these questions.

3. Finally, although the California Supreme Court in the UCLA case announced the existence of a duty on the part of the university, the trier of fact, whether judge or jury, will have to decide whether UCLA actually breached its duty under the particular facts of that case.  The California Supreme Court’s lengthy recitation of the facts suggests that a number of university administrators and mental health professionals had spent many hours trying to help the disturbed student, whom they recognized was delusional. Was it sufficient that they repeatedly asked him whether he would hurt himself or another student based on the voices in his head, and he repeatedly had denied that he would do so?  (And how reliable is any answer by such a disturbed student?)

I am glad I am not the judge who will have to preside over the trial of this UCLA case.  The outcome is far from clear.

For presidents, administrators and trustees of institutions of higher education, it is not enough to know about the general duty outlined by the California Supreme Court.

What to do with that knowledge is discussed in part 2 of this article, along with the Massachusetts case on student suicides.

About the Author

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George Birnbaum

Since 1980, sophisticated business people have relied on George to apply the meticulous preparation, attention to detail, and devotion to his clients he learned from fabled trial lawyer Louis Nizer. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, George has over 35 years of distinguished deal-making, litigation, mediation and arbitration experience which he has used to negotiate high-stakes agreements for senior executives and select business clients throughout the United States.