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CA Supreme Court Rules UC Not Immune From Personal Injury Claim for Attack on Campus

In California, institutions of higher education have a duty of care to protect their students from reasonably foreseeable dangers, including foreseeable acts of violence committed by other students. In The Regents of the University of California vs. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Cal. Ct. App. Case No. B259424, the court defined the standard of care that applies, when triable issues of material fact might exist, and when governmental immunity may apply.

Factual and procedural background

For the fall 2008 semester, Damon Thompson enrolled in classes at the University of California-Los Angeles. Thompson began having problems almost immediately and suffered from paranoia and auditory hallucinations. Thompson complained multiple times to the residence director of his dormitory and to his professors about his beliefs that other students were verbally harassing and threatening him.

After Thompson made repeated claims that other students in his classes were calling him names and making threats, he was taken for an evaluation at a psychiatric hospital. While he was there, he was preliminarily diagnosed with possible schizophrenia and was referred for mental health services through UCLA’s CAPS program.

Thompson was diagnosed with schizophrenia and major depressive disorder by Nicole Green, a UCLA psychologist. Thompson reportedly told Green that he sometimes wanted to harm the students that he believed were talking about him. He also said that he heard voices coming through the walls of his dorm room that led him to believe that other students would shoot him.

Thompson had complained to his chemistry professor that other students in the class were disrupting his work and talking badly about him. He identified Katherine Rosen, a fellow student, as one of the people he believed were talking about him. On Oct. 8, 2009, Thompson suddenly attacked Rosen without warning in the chemistry lab, stabbing her in the chest and neck with a kitchen knife.

Rosen filed a lawsuit against UCLA and Nicole Green, alleging that the university owed her a duty of care to take reasonable steps to prevent the foreseeable risk of injury to her from Thompson. The university and Green filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing the following:

  • UCLA owed no duty of care to Rosen;
  • If it did owe a duty of care, it did not breach it; and
  • Governmental immunity shielded both UCLA and Green from liability.

The trial court denied the motion for summary judgment, finding that UCLA did owe a duty of care to Rosen because of the special relationship that colleges have with their students. UCLA filed an appeal, and a divided appeals court panel granted the motion for summary judgment. The court found that universities did not owe a duty of care to protect students from the criminal acts of third parties.

Rosen appealed the decision to the California Supreme Court, which overturned the appeals court and ruled that universities do owe a duty of care to protect students from foreseeable acts of violence while they are engaged in curricular activities. The court left open the question of what standard of care applies and whether there were triable issues of fact remaining in Rosen’s case.

Issues: (1) What is the standard of care for a university’s duty to protect students from violence? (2) Did the evidence presented by both parties present issues of triable fact? (3) Was the university and its employees shielded from liability through governmental immunity?

The case was sent back from the California Supreme Court to the Cal. Court of Appeals to decide three issues. The first issue concerned what the applicable standard of care should be for universities. The court gave leave to the parties to argue the standard of care that should apply. The plaintiff argued that the reasonably prudent person standard under ordinary negligence claims should apply. The defendants argued that a narrower standard should apply that would only exist if a person had made a specific threat to harm a specific person. UCLA also argued that it did not breach its duty of care and that there were no remaining issues of triable fact. Finally, UCLA argued that even if it breached its duty, it was shielded from liability through governmental immunity.

Rules: (1) The standard of care for universities with respect to their duty to protect students from foreseeable harm is the reasonably prudent person standard. (2) Questions about whether a defendant breached its duty of care can only be decided as a matter of law in situations in which no reasonable jury could infer that the defendant was negligent. (3) Governmental immunity applies to decisions that are made in planning and the creation of policies but not to the implementation of those policies.

The Supreme Court found that universities do owe a duty of care to their students to protect them from reasonably foreseeable risks of violence that might happen during curricular activities. In general, determining whether a defendant breached his or her duty of care is normally a matter for a jury unless it is a rare case in which the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could not rationally decide that the defendant breached the duty. Finally, the court examined the governmental immunity statutes as they applied to UCLA and to Green.

Analysis

Both parties submitted supplemental briefs concerning the standard of care that they thought should apply to universities. The defense argued that the court should apply a limited standard to universities and that the duty should only apply when a third party had communicated a threat of imminent harm to a specific student rather than a general statement of a wish to injure others. The plaintiffs argued that the reasonably prudent person standard from ordinary negligence should apply, pointing out that it was the standard that was adopted for secondary schools.

The court looked at the Supreme Court’s decision. The defendant’s proposed standard would have effectively limited the Supreme Court’s ruling. The court instead found that the reasonably prudent person standard and ordinary negligence rules apply to universities.

Next, the court looked at whether there were triable issues of material fact for a jury to decide. UCLA argued that it had not breached its duty of care because it had acted in a reasonable manner to Thompson’s state of mental deterioration by transporting him to a psychiatric hospital, referring him to the university’s crisis response team, and providing him with mental health services at CAPs. Rosen argued that the university had breached its duty of care because it failed to refer his case to the university’s violence response team and to take other actions to protect the students.

UCLA also argued that it was protected under the governmental immunity statutes from liability even if it had breached its duty of care. Green likewise argued that she was protected under a different liability statute.

The court reviewed the evidence that had been presented by the plaintiff. After reviewing it, the court analyzed it under the ruling in Sprecher v. Adamson Companies, 30 Cal.3d 358 (1981). In that case, the court held that summary judgment is only appropriate in cases in which a reasonable jury could not rationally infer that the defendants were negligent. The court found that a jury could infer that UCLA was negligent and had breached its duty in light of the evidence and expert opinions that Rosen had presented.

Finally, in looking at the governmental immunity statutes, the court found that governmental immunity would only apply to UCLA if Rosen had argued that the university was negligent in planning or drafting its policies. However, she was arguing about the implementation of those policies, so governmental immunity did not apply to the university. However, the court found that Green was immune under a different statute.

Conclusion

The appeals court granted the motion for summary judgment as to Green, but it remanded the remaining issues back to the trial court for trial. The case will proceed on the issue of whether the university violated its duty of care to Rosen.

Contact an attorney

If you were injured in an attack on a university campus, you may have legal rights. It is important for you to talk about what happened to you with an experienced personal injury attorney in Los Angeles. Call The Law Offices of Steven M. Sweat today for a free and confidential case analysis.   If you have questions, our personal injury resource page might have further information  you may find useful.

Sources

https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2018/b259424a.html?utm_source=summary-newsletters&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2018-12-07-personal-injury-540c234760&utm_content=text-case-read-more-4

https://scocal.stanford.edu/opinion/sprecher-v-adamson-companies-28258

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