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California Supreme Court Rules Universities/Colleges Owe Students a Duty of Care to Protect them from Foreseeable Violence During Curricular Activities

A surprising new case from the Supreme Court of California holds that, under the special relationship doctrine, Colleges and Universities owe students a duty of care to protect them from “foreseeable violence during curricular activities.”

The Case is Regents of the University of California v. Superior Court (2018) 2018 Cal. LEXIS 1971.

The case involves a student at UCLE named Damon Thompson who began to hear voices.  It was his belief that other students in class and in his dorm were speaking about and criticizing him.  School administrators were made aware of these delusions and attempted to provide Thompson with mental health treatment.  Despite this, Thompson stabbed a classmate during a chemistry lab.  The stabbed student, Katherine Rosen, sued UCLA and several of its employees for negligence, arguing they failed to protect her from Thompson’s foreseeable violent conduct.

At one point while attending school, Thompson wrote the dean of students to complain about what he was experiencing and warned that the matter would likely “escalate into a more serious situation,” and he would “end up acting in a manner that will incur undesirable consequences.”  In response to this letter, Thompson was moved to a different dormitory.  Later, he indicated to staff that he had “though about” hurting other students.  His dorm room was searched but no weapon was found.  School staff diagnosed him with “possible schizophrenia and major depressive disorder”  He agreed to take low-dose antipsychotic medication and being outpatient treatment with te school.  He began sessions with a school psychologist shortly thereafter.  He continued to insist that the voices he heard were real and refused to take medication.  The school was made aware, through the psychologist, that Thomspon was continuing to struggle and the school began to discuss moving him into different housing.  Shortly thereafter, he was expelled from student housing after a verbal and physical altercation with another student in the dormitory whom he accused of calling him names.  He continued to write letters to his professors indicating that other students were verbally assaulting him.  He also continued to treat with the school psychologist.  Ultimately, believing she had made derogatory comments to him, Thompson stabbed a fellow student in the chest and neck while in their Chemistry Lab.  He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to the charges of attempted murder.

Rosen, the student who received life threatening injuries, sued UCLA.  UCLA moved for summary judgment, arguing it owed no duty to protect its students from criminal acts!  It further argued that it, and its psychologist, were immune from suit under various government statutes.

Rosen argued that summary judgment should not be granted on the grounds that a special relationship existed between the college and its students based on their supervisory duties and the students’ status as business invitees.  She further argued that they had undertaken the duty by providing campus-wide security.

The trial court agreed and denied UCLA’s motion for summary judgment.  UCLA appealed and the Appellate Court held that UCLA owed no duty to protect Rosen.

The Supreme Court overturned the Appellate Court.  The Supreme Court agreed with Rosen that a special relationship existed and, under the special relationship doctrine, Colleges and Universities owe students a duty of care to protect them from “foreseeable violence during curricular activities.”

The case has been remanded to Superior Court.

Mr. Serrano has been admitted to practice before California State and Federal Courts. He was named to the Super Lawyers’ 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 Southern California Rising Stars List, an honor awarded to no more than 2.5% of attorneys in Southern California each year. View Attorney Jean-Simon Serrano's Attorney Bio Here.

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