Ask the Experts


Two students had a vicious fight in one of the dorms. I heard no life-threatening injuries. Now what happens, the college gets sued?

The tone of this question reflects a larger theme of our modern society: who pays. Political pundits even attribute this phrase to President Trump’s interpretation of foreign policy. Fortunately, you said there were no life-threatening injuries. Since the incident occurred on campus, the college will likely be named as a defendant. Let us overview how laws and judges determine liability.

The legal system is fickle, changing from case-to-case, and state-to-state. We examine three separate cases to highlight these variations and review the parameters.

In the first, a student attacked on a Louisiana campus filed suit for negligence by the university. This comes under a wide sweeping law known as premises liability. The landowner is responsible for ensuring the premises are safe for anyone residing on them. Owners must exercise reasonable care and warn of any dangers or risks. Theoretically, the owner could be liable for accident recovery, lost income, and suffering if they were proven to be negligent.

To comply with this, a University must be aware of the potential for personal injury to students and provide adequate safety and security. In the Louisiana case, it was alleged that the college failed to provide security measures such as fencing and cameras to protect students living on campus.
Switching to California, courts ruled that public colleges do not have a general legal obligation to protect students from attacks or violence from other students. This particular ruling rejected a claim that UCLA did not do enough to prevent an attack on a student by another in the chemistry lab. It was revealed that the attacker had serious mental health issues and was found not guilty under an insanity plea.

The suit centered on whether the college did enough, since it knew of the aggressor’s medical condition. Focusing on the similarity between a public college and public in general, the court found there was no obligation by the college to take additional measures.

In Pennsylvania, one college had a specific security program for campus incidents. The college faced liability as a result of failure to adhere to their own security program. The cause of the attack was the discovery of a loaded gun and a pound of marijuana in the room of the victim, resulting in the expulsion of the victim’s roommate, who later took revenge. Marijuana lawyers report that colleges often handle drug crimes internally, rather than seeking outside involvement. The court found the college accountable for failing to report the discovery to the police, which was required by the college’s own security program.

From above, the most glaring issue is the same incident can occur at a private college and at a public one. If the former case, the college is liable, but in the latter case, no one is.

Laws are confusing documents. They get in the way of justice… Paolo Bacigalupi.

Jacob Maslow is the founder and editor of Legal Scoops.