Colleges must protect intoxicated students from harm

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A recent ruling from Massachusetts’ highest court shows that at least in some states, colleges and universities can be held liable if they fail to protect students from alcohol-related emergencies.

The case stemmed from the alleged sexual assault of a freshman at Northeastern University in Boston. The student claimed that a classmate sexually assaulted her in her dorm after he walked her back from a party at another residence hall. She alleged in her lawsuit that resident advisors knew she was seriously intoxicated at the time but failed to take appropriate steps to protect her from harm.

The university sought to have the case dismissed, arguing that because there is generally no duty to protect others from harm caused by third parties it had no duty to protect the student, who was voluntarily intoxicated, under the circumstances.

When a trial judge granted Northeastern’s motion, the student appealed.

The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed the decision, finding that the mere presence of an intoxicated young woman accompanied by an intoxicated young man on their way back to their residence hall did not make a sexual assault reasonably foreseeable to university employees or staff. As a result, the student did not have an actionable claim.

But the court was unwilling to accept Northeastern’s argument that colleges and universities have no duty to protect students from the consequences of voluntary alcohol use. It announced that institutions of higher education have a “special relationship” with their students that obligates them to take “reasonable measures” to protect students who are in “imminent danger.”

Although it didn’t help the student in this case, the decision sends a signal that colleges can in certain circumstances be held accountable when it’s clear a student is at risk and no action is taken.

While this is a Massachusetts case and other states may view the issue differently, if you or a member of your family has suffered alcohol-related harm on campus and you feel the school should have done more to prevent it, it’s certainly worth discussing your case with an attorney.

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