Are Colleges Obligated to Protect Their Students from Harm?

Does a college or university owe a special duty of care to protect its students from each other? It’s possible that they do, according to a recent opinion coming from the Supreme Court of California in Regents of the University of California v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County (Katherine Rosen). In its opinion, the Court recounts a harrowing tale of an individual, evidently plagued by mental illness, who attacked his fellow student (Rosen) in a UCLA classroom while class was in session. The primary question posed to the Court on review was whether the University owed Rosen a special duty to protect her from foreseeably violent conduct in the classroom or during curricular activities.

In its analysis the Court first restated California’s rules regarding the duty to warn or protect. In general, although each person has a duty to act with reasonable care under the circumstances, “one owes no duty to control the conduct of another, nor to warn those endangered by such conduct,” Davidson v. City of Westminster (1982) 32 Cal.3d 197, 203. Going one step further, the court reiterated that “a person who has not created a peril is not liable in tort merely for failure to take affirmative action to assist or protect another unless there is some relationship between them which gives rise to a duty to act.” Williams v. State of California (1983) 34 Cal.3d 18, 23.

The Court goes on to discuss situations in which there is a duty to either control or protect. It references the parent-child relationship as an example of a special relationship giving rise to a duty to control. Conversely, it sets forth common carriers and passengers, and innkeepers and guests as classic examples of a special duty to protect. The Court ultimately refrained from discussing whether UCLA had a special duty to control its students, since they found that UCLA did have a special duty to protect its students.

To support their finding, the Court quotes the Restatement Third of Torts, which includes “a school with its students” as a relationship giving rise to a special duty to protect. (Rest.3d Torts, Liability for Physical and Emotional Harm, §40, subd. (b).) The Court further analyzes the traditional features of a “special” relationship, including aspects of dependency or reliance, and a party’s superior control over the means of protection (Baldwin v. Zoradi (1981) 123 Cal. App. 3d 275, 283; Giraldo v. Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (2008) 168 Cal.App.4th 231, 245-46). The Court found that colleges provide a discrete community for their students, and as such students are dependent on their college communities to provide structure, guidance, and a safe learning environment. It then found that colleges also have superior control over the ability to protect students by way of their rules and restrictions, both in the classroom and across campus.

These factors resulted in the Court concluding that a special relationship does exist between colleges and their students, at least while they are engaging in activities that are tied to the school’s curriculum. This special relationship imposes upon colleges a duty to protect its students from foreseeable harm in the classroom or during other curricular activites.