Whether or not a private college or university may be sued for damages depends upon whether the school is considered to be immune from lawsuits because it is a charitable institution. In certain jurisdictions, charitable institutions are immune or partially immune from tort liability.

In some jurisdictions, charitable institutions are not immune from tort liability at all. If a private college or university is not a charitable institution, for example a public university, it is likely that they can be sued just like any other organization.

When Can a Private College be Held Liable for Injuries?

If a private college or university is found not to be immune from tort liability, then the usual rules governing tort and negligence laws will apply in order to determine if the school is at fault for the injury.The liability for private schools and universities for negligence in causing injury to students and other individuals may arise in certain types situations, including, but not limited to:

  • Injuries from accidents due to the conditions of:
    • buildings;
    • equipment; or
    • outside premises;
  • Injuries connected to class-related activities;
  • Injuries during recreational activities;
  • Injuries caused by a student’s intoxication;
  • Injuries due to fraternity or sorority hazing;
  • Injuries resulting from negligent hiring and retention of employees; and
  • Injuries resulting from provided health care, or from the failure to render medical assistance.

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

If an individual determines that their college or university is not private, it may be a public institution. A public university or college is a bit more difficult to sue than a private university.

Instead of being viewed as a private entity, a public institution is typically considered a type of government entity instead. An individual may be able to sue a public or semi-public institution as long as the lawsuit is permitted in the jurisdiction where the school is located.

In contrast, an individual may not be permitted to sue a public institution if the state legislature where the school is located forbids lawsuits against semi-public or public institutions because it labels them a government entity.

What is Negligence?

The legal concept of negligence is the failure to act with the level of care that an individual of ordinary prudence would have used in the same or very similar type of situation. Negligence is one of the most common legal theories which are applied in personal injury cases because it allows the injured party to recover damages for the careless actions of another individual.

A plaintiff who is suing for negligence must prove four elements:

  • Duty;
  • Breach of duty;
  • Causation; and
  • Damages.

How Does Negligence Relate to Campus Safety Issues?

In order for an individual to understand how negligence may apply to a campus safety issue, it may be helpful to consider the follow example:

  • A college or university owed a plaintiff a duty to keep the campus safe;
  • The institution breached its duty by failing to keep the campus safe;
  • By breaching this duty, their actions became the actual and proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injuries; and
  • The defendant’s negligent behavior caused the plaintiff to sustain an injury that resulted in actual damages, such as:
    • hospital bills;
    • medical expenses;
    • emotional distress; and
    • other issues.

Every college or university owes some level of care to the individuals who are on their campuses. The exact level of care is not uniform because of the differences and variations in state laws as well as underdeveloped case law.

For example, colleges and universities are, on one hand, landlords. These institutions provide housing for students and accept money in exchange for providing a degree.

They are also, on the other hand, educational institutions. Therefore, while they may not have the same high level of duty as a school which teaches students from pre-k to 12th grade, the degree of care they must exercise is still more than that which would be necessary for a standard business or landlord.

As the number of incidents on college campuses has increased over the years, the recent trend in the United States is for a court to rule that the college or university does, in fact, owe a higher duty of care to its students. This notion, however, is restricted to situations which the institution has some control over as well as those incidents that are foreseeable.

Because of this, it may be clear that the student who slips and falls on their institution’s poorly maintained cafeteria will be able to sue that institution for their injuries, liability is not as straightforward when a random act of violence occurs on a college campus.

What Damages are Available in a Campus Safety Lawsuit?

If a plaintiff is successful in proving their case, they may be able to recover different types of damages, or compensation, which may include:

  • Compensatory damages;
  • Punitive damages; and
  • Other remedies.

Compensatory damages may be awarded to monetarily compensate the plaintiff for their injuries. These damages may be awarded to reimburse them for:

  • Medical expenses;
  • Hospital bills;
  • Loss of income, if they were employed;
  • Loss of future income;
  • Wrongful death;
  • Pain and suffering; and
  • Emotional distress.

There are two general main categories of compensatory damages, special damages and general damages. Special damages are compensation intended to restore the plaintiff to the position they were in prior to their injury.

Special damages typically include damages which can be assigned a monetary value, such as medical expense and property damage. General damages are typically awarded for losses which are not easily determined using monetary calculations, which may include emotional distress.

It is important to note that some states place limits on the amount of compensatory damages which can be awarded. Another type of damages a plaintiff may receive are punitive damages.

Punitive damages can be difficult to obtain because they are only awarded in certain extreme situations. If, however, an institution is aware or should have been aware that their campus was not safe or if it has repeatedly been sued or multiple incidents have occurred, and the entity continues to do nothing to make their students safer, then a court may issue a punitive damages award.

There are also other types of remedies which may be ordered in certain cases, including:

  • 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
  • Taking action against perpetrators, for example, expulsion.

Do I Need a Lawyer if I Have Been Injured at a Private Institution?

If you have been injured at a private institution, it may be very helpful to consult with a personal injury attorney. Your attorney can advise you regarding the status of the college or university and whether it can be held liable.

In addition, your attorney will be able to advise you of your rights as well as your options if you have been injured at a private university. If, after reviewing all the evidence, you decide to sue the school, it will be very helpful to have an attorney to help you navigate through the complicated legal process.

It is important to note that many colleges and universities have the resources and the funding to hire attorneys to defend any claims made against them, making it even more difficult for a plaintiff to prevail.