The concept of negligence law is born of the idea that we each owe certain duties to one another. This includes not only individuals and businesses but also branches of the government. It can also include non-profit organizations and, as was the situation in a recent case, colleges and universities.
Some duties are general in nature, such as the duty that motorists owe one another to keep a proper lookout while driving. Duties can sometimes be more specific, depending on special knowledge or control by one party or the other.
One thing that is sure, however, is that no one owes anyone else the duty to prevent any and all harm that might befall him or her. Such a notion would be very unfair, of course. Instead, the question of duty is more often resolved based on an inquiry into whether the harm was foreseeable and whether the defendant could have prevented such with reasonable efforts.
Facts of the Case
In a recent case, the plaintiff was a former student of the defendant university. She alleged that, in the fall of 2013, she was sexually assaulted by a fellow first year student in the alleged assailant’s dormitory room where they two had gone at a party at which both students had consumed a considerable amount of alcohol. The plaintiff sought money damages from the university, claiming that its negligence led to the alleged assault and caused her resulting damages. The former student also named several university employees as defendants in the suit. According to the plaintiff’s theory of liability, the defendants were liable for both failing to prevent the sexual assault and for inadequately responding to the event once it had happened (the university’s campus police department declined to charge the alleged assailant with a crime despite the plaintiff’s statement that the interaction between them was non-consensual).
After the discovery phase of the litigation had concluded, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. The trial court ruled in the defendants’ favor on the motion, and the plaintiff appealed. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court accepted her application for direct review.
The Appellate Court’s Ruling
The state supreme court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s lawsuit on summary judgment. While acknowledging that universities such as the defendant had certain duties to students like the plaintiff, including the duty to protect students from the foreseeable criminal acts of third parties (even when such acts were made possible by a student victim’s intoxication), the court concluded that there was no duty to protect the plaintiff under the circumstances presented. The court so held after noting that the defendants had, at best, only minimal knowledge of the conditions that gave rise to the alleged harm complained of by the plaintiff and that, under the facts presented in the case, the university had met its duty to protect its students from harms associated with alcohol-related emergencies.
In so holding, the court noted that not just one, but both, students were voluntarily intoxicated at the time in question and that, when asked about the encounter by the police later, the plaintiff had said that she was “very uncomfortable with what was going on” but that “she didn’t want to hurt [the fellow student’s] feelings by … telling him to stop.” After the alleged incident, the university had held proceedings in which the alleged assailant was charged with – but ultimately exonerated of – sexual assault with penetration. Although the plaintiff characterized the university’s response to what had happened as “deliberate indifference,” the reviewing court concluded otherwise, stating that the university had acted expeditiously and reasonably to the plaintiff’s allegations.
To Speak to an Experienced Cape Cod Attorney
If you have been hurt by someone else’s negligence or reckless conduct, you should talk to a lawyer about your legal rights. To schedule an appointment with a seasoned personal injury attorney, please call the Law Offices of John C. Manoog III at 888-262-6664 and ask for an appointment to discuss your case with a member of our legal team.