California Supreme Court Finds Colleges Have Duty to Protect Students from Foreseeable Harm

In a recent case, the California Supreme Court determined that colleges have a duty to protect students from foreseeable harm. In that case, the court considered a California personal injury claim against the University of California at Los Angeles, after a girl was stabbed by another student during a class.

The Facts of the Case

The student had been experiencing auditory hallucinations, which were first brought to the attention of a professor, the department chair, and the dean of students. He complained that other students were insulting him and told the dean of students that if the university failed to discipline the other students, the matter would likely “escalate into a more serious situation,” and he would act in a way that would “incur undesirable consequences.” He then complained to other professors and a teaching assistant (TA). The TA noted that the student was frequently talking to himself and displayed what she believed were signs of schizophrenia. The student was urged to use the school’s counseling services. The assistant dean of students also contacted the university’s response team, which advises campus members who are concerned about the well-being of a student.

The student later told his resident director that he was advised to hurt other residents and that he had thought about it, but he had decided not to hurt anyone. Campus police came and searched his room but did not find a weapon, and they brought him to the emergency room for a psychiatric evaluation. He was diagnosed with possible schizophrenia and major depressive disorder. The student agreed to begin treatment at the school’s counseling service and to take an antipsychotic medication.

A psychologist at the school’s counseling center diagnosed the student with schizophrenia and urged him to see a psychiatrist. The student admitted to throwing away the medication and said he would not take any medication until he could determine if the voices were real. He later told a school psychiatrist that he thought about harming people who were insulting him. The psychiatrist urged him to be voluntarily hospitalized, but the student refused and said he would take medication. The center found he did not meet the criteria for involuntary hospitalization. The student eventually withdrew from treatment and was later expelled from university housing. He continued to experience auditory hallucinations and a few months later started going to the counseling center again. He told the psychologist he did not intend to harm anyone.

Two days before the stabbing, a teaching assistant emailed a professor about an incident during a chemistry lab in which he accused another student of calling him stupid. The TA noted that the student frequently identified another student as one of the students calling him stupid. The university’s response team expressed concern that the student had identified a specific student. The following day, during a chemistry lab, the student stabbed the student without warning or provocation. The student suffered life-threatening injuries but survived.

The Claim

The injured student sued the university for negligence. She alleged that the university had a special relationship with her and that the university had a duty to take reasonable measures to ensure her safety. She claimed that the university was aware of the student’s dangerous propensities but failed to warn or protect her or control the student’s conduct. The university argued it did not have a duty to protect students from criminal acts.

A University’s Duty to Protect Students

Generally, an individual or entity does not have a duty to control the conduct of another party, nor to warn others, absent a special relationship. A special relationship may exist if a defendant has a relationship with a foreseeably dangerous person, and the defendant is able to control that person’s conduct.

In this case, the court found that the university had a duty to warn or protect the claimant from foreseeable harm. The court explained that enrolled students depend on colleges to provide a safe learning environment, and colleges have control over the campus by imposing rules and restrictions and other measures. It noted the relationship was limited to activities that are tied to the school’s curriculum, such as the classroom. The court determined that the university might have foreseen that its failure to control a potentially violent student, or to warn students who were foreseeable targets, could result in harm to those students. Therefore, the supreme court found the university owes a duty to protect students like the claimant from harm.

Contact a Los Angeles Personal Injury Lawyer

If you or a loved one has been injured, contact an attorney as soon as possible. At Sharifi Firm, APC, our injury lawyers provide dedicated representation to Los Angeles residents who have been harmed due to the negligence of others. We handle claims of wrongful death, motor vehicle collisions, slip and falls, and nursing home abuse, among other injury claims. We represent individuals in Riverside, San Bernardino, Glendale, and other cities throughout the Los Angeles region. Contact our California personal injury lawyers for a free, no-obligation consultation at 1-866-422-7222 or via our online form.

More Blog Posts:

California Court Upholds City’s Assertion of Trail Immunity in Recent Personal Injury Case, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, April 5, 2018

Establishing Liability in California Premises Liability Claims, Southern California Injury Lawyer Blog, March 21, 2018

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