The California Supreme Court has just ruled that universities and colleges owe a legal duty of care to their students to protect them from foreseeable acts of violence on campus; joining Massachusetts, Florida, and Delaware which had previously taken the same position.
“Given the prestige and influence of California’s highest court, and the growing number of violent incidents occurring on campuses, this ruling is likely to spread very quickly, just like Tarasoff,” predicts public interest law professor John Banzhaf, referring to the famous California case which, in imposing a legal duty of mental health professions to protect those who may be threatened by their patients, caused a legal revolution which quickly sweep the country.
In the past, colleges and universities had argued that they had no more of a legal duty to foresee and prevent campus violence than a casual bystander or a landlord renting to students would have, but this court has now said that the special relationship that a college has with its students imposes such a legal responsibility.
More specifically, it makes the college financially liable if it did not take reasonable care to prevent a foreseeable injury, even if the proximate cause of the injury is the deliberate criminal act of another student.
While this specific case involved one student attacking another student, the same reasoning and legal conclusion would seem to apply if a student attacked a professor or visa versa, says Banzhaf, since both are part of the overall university community and subject to its regulations and controls.
Likewise, and potentially of far greater importance, this duty may very well also extend to students injured by on-campus riots and other demonstrations even if the perpetrator is not a student or is cannot be specifically singled out, says Banzhaf, because the university can impose controls on campus events by limiting admission to its own students, and/or adopting other screening and preventive measures.
“Given the climate on many campuses today, it is far more foreseeable that a student will be injured if a controversial speaker triggers a violent confrontation than that one student would stab another, the facts in the case just decided,” says Banzhaf.
The new California ruling, coupled with similar prior rulings in Massachusetts, Florida, and Delaware, is likely to further increase pressure on universities to put an end to the growing madness where many controversial speakers provoke violent confrontations which could have been prevented, and where the students who commit these criminal acts all too often go unpunished, says Banzhaf, especially since individual faculty members, as well as the academic unit, can be sued and found liable.