Suing a College or University for Negligence

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 Campus Safety Lawsuits

Campus safety refers to the policies and systems that higher learning institutions implement to keep their students, staff, and visitors safe.

Over the last thirty years, providing a safe campus has become a top priority for colleges and universities. This is partly due to the number of students now enrolled in college, the increasing awareness of criminal activities occurring on campuses, and several federal laws that have since been enacted to prevent further harm to students.

A single incident that causes severe harm can have a ripple effect that not only impacts an institution’s students, but also its staff, visitors, victims’ families, and its future reputation. Oftentimes, serious events that take place on a campus can have long lasting consequences because they tend to leave both physical and emotional scars on the affected community.

Thus, to prevent such widespread injuries, both the law and postsecondary institutions are working to address such issues by requiring colleges and universities to:

  • Create and disclose safety and security policies;
  • Publish annual crime statistics and keep a crime log;
  • Provide a system that alerts students and employees about an immediate or ongoing safety concern or threat; and
  • Implement, educate, and disclose programs for certain crimes, such as domestic violence and sexual assault.

Who Is Liable for Campus Crimes?

There are several types of crimes that frequently occur on college campuses. Some of these crimes include:

  • Theft;
  • Assault;
  • Sexual abuse or assault;
  • Drug crimes;
  • Harassment;
  • Hazing crimes; and
  • Crimes involving alcohol (e.g., underage drinking).

Whether an institution can be held liable will depend on a variety of factors, which will be discussed in further detail below. However, there are a number of other parties besides the institution who can be held responsible as well, including:

  • The students;
  • Visitors;
  • Trespassers; and/or
  • School personnel (e.g., professors, campus security, janitors, etc.).

Can I Sue a Private University or College?

In the eyes of the law, private universities and colleges are viewed as private businesses. Thus, in most cases, a plaintiff may file a campus safety lawsuit against a private university or college.

The one exception to this general rule of thumb is if the private institution is immune from legal liability because it is considered a charitable institution. Depending on the laws regarding charitable institutions in the jurisdiction where the institution is located, the institution may either be immune, partially immune, or not immune at all from lawsuits.

As such, if the private institution is also labeled a charitable institution and the laws in that jurisdiction give charitable institutions full immunity privileges, then it probably will not be possible to file a lawsuit against them. In contrast, if the private institution is not labeled a charitable institution or the laws in the jurisdiction do not provide immunity, then a victim may take legal action against them.

Can I Sue a Public University or College for My Injuries?

Public universities and colleges are a bit harder to sue than private universities. Rather than being viewed as a private entity, public institutions are typically considered a form of government entity instead. An individual may be able to sue a public or semi-public institution, so as long as it is permitted in the jurisdiction where the school is located.

On the other hand, an individual will not be allowed to sue a public institution if the state legislature where it is located forbids lawsuits against semi-public or public institutions because it labels them a government entity.

What Must I Show to Prove That the College or University Is Liable?

If an individual intends to sue a college or university for their injuries, they must first be able to prove that the school was negligent in failing to keep its campus and students safe. One way to show this is by bringing a claim for premises liability.

For instance, if an institution knows that its campus is not safe and repairs as well as security cameras need to be installed, then a student who gets injured on campus due to the institution’s failure to fix these issues will be able to sue for resulting injuries.

In situations where another student causes the injuries and the campus to become unsafe, whether an individual can sue an institution is not so clear. The answer depends on if the administration or school personnel were negligent in preventing such injuries.

Some factors that may determine whether the school was negligent and thus may be held accountable include whether it could foresee that the student may be a threat to others, how much control the school had over its students during the time and in the location of where the incident took place, and whether the school was aware that it needed more safety measures (e.g., campus security).

Evidence that may support a claim that a college or university should be held liable for injuries include:

  • Demonstrating that the institution was aware of the threat to safety or problem by using witnesses, prior incidents, and correspondence (e.g., if students consistently receive campus safety alerts).
  • Submitting pictures or videos that show unsafe campus conditions, such as rusty sports equipment, broken fences, and lack of lighting along pathways at night.
  • Proving the ease of implementing safety features (e.g., cameras, campus security officers, etc.) by pointing to costs of equipment and personnel, or requesting copies of the school budget.
  • Reviewing the contract between the institution and its students, and highlighting the provisions where the institution may have breached its duty to keep students safe.

What Is Negligence? How Does it Relate to Campus Safety Issues?

As a legal concept, the term “negligence” is defined as a failure to act with the level of care that a person of ordinary prudence would have used in the same situation. Negligence is one of the primary legal theories applied in personal injury cases because it allows injured parties to recover damages for the careless actions of another. A plaintiff suing for negligence must prove four elements: duty, breach of duty, causation, and damages.

In order to understand how negligence applies to campus safety issues, consider the following example:

  • A college or university owed a plaintiff a duty to keep the campus safe;
  • They breached this duty by not keeping the campus safe;
  • By breaching this duty, their actions became the actual and proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries;
  • The defendant’s negligent behavior caused the plaintiff to sustain an injury that resulted in actual damages (e.g., hospital bills, medical expenses, emotional distress, etc.).

All colleges and universities owe some level of care to individuals on their campuses. The exact level of care is unclear due to differences in state laws and underdeveloped case law.

For instance, on one hand colleges and universities are businesses and landlords. They provide housing for students and accept payments in exchange for a degree. On the other hand, they are also educational institutions.

Thus, while they may not have as high of a standard of duty as schools that teach students from pre-k to 12th grade, the degree of care they must exercise is still more than what would be necessary for a standard business or landlord.

As the number of college campus incidents has increased over the years, the recent trend in U.S. courts is to rule that colleges and universities do owe a higher legal duty of care to their students. However, this notion is restricted to situations that the institution has some control over and those incidents that are foreseeable.

So, while it is clear that a student who slips and falls in their institution’s poorly maintained cafeteria will be able to sue that institution, it is not as straightforward when a random act of violence occurs on a college campus.

What Damages are Available in a Campus Safety Lawsuit?

Depending on if the case is successful, a student may be able to recover a number of different remedies or types of legal damages, including:

  • Compensatory damages: Both economic and non-economic compensatory damages may be available to the plaintiff. This includes reimbursements for medical expenses, hospital bills, loss of income (if employed), loss of future income, wrongful death, pain and suffering, and emotional distress.
  • Punitive damages: Punitive damages may be difficult to obtain since they are only awarded in extreme cases. However, if an institution knows or should know their campus is not safe, has repeatedly been sued or has had multiple incidents occur, and continues to do nothing to make their students safer, then a court may potentially issue a punitive damages award.
  • Other remedies: Being ordered to implement new systems and policies to make a campus safer, changing safety policies, creating a safety education program, requiring students and employees to take safety courses, and/or taking action against perpetrators (e.g., school expels perpetrator).

Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer for a Campus Safety Lawsuit?

As discussed above, campus safety lawsuits are a developing and complex area of law. Courts and lawmakers are still debating whether colleges and universities should be held to a higher standard of care, and tort laws vary widely across state lines. Therefore, if you are involved in a campus safety lawsuit, you should strongly consider hiring a local personal injury lawyer for further legal guidance.

An experienced personal injury lawyer will be familiar with the laws in your state and any changes in the law. Your lawyer can also explain your rights as a litigant, determine whether a claim against your institution will be viable, and can discuss your options for recourse.

Additionally, if your claim is strong enough to sue your institution, your lawyer can help you prepare and file your case, argue on your behalf in court, and negotiate for an appropriate amount of funds should your institution decide to settle the matter outside of court.


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