How does Personal Injury Law Work for College Students

College students are getting injured all the time on college campuses. It is easy to see someone have a slip and fall, or get hit by a car. Sometimes there are also assaults due to inadequate lighting, fatalities, and injuries due to improperly guarded swimming pools on the university premises. If you are worried, as a college student, what your rights under the personal injury law will be, this article will help you get a basic glimpse of the law on this subject area. The U.S. courts have been increasingly less willing to exempt universities from legal responsibility for their actions, finding legal liability in numerous settings where courts a decade or two ago refused to tread.

Observing a rampant rise in such misfortunate incidents and escalating liability of institutions, the American legal system has developed a systematic jurisprudence to resolve these cases. According to the U.S. District Courts Judicial Business Report, 63,564 personal injury cases had been filed in 2018 alone, 18.4% more than that in 2017.

As a federal legal system, there is no unanimous law governing the premises liability in case of on-campus personal injury. The personal injury jurisprudence varies with the states and the various cases. Nonetheless, the underlying principle remains the same.

What about international students getting injured?

The personal injury caused to any graduate, pursuing a program in an American college or university, arising out of the negligence of such an American institution, is yet an unexplored arena of law.

Personal injury laws enforced across the United States of America do not distinguish the victims on the ground of nationality. A non-American citizen enjoys uniform, personal injury rights as an American citizen. Despite an injured party holding the status of an immigrant, he would be entitled to exercise fundamental rights in cases of personal injury as a citizen of the United States.

In the historical decision of Plyler v. Doe, the United States Supreme Court held that all persons, including aliens, whether their presence is lawful, unlawful, temporary, or permanent, are protected by the due process clause under the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments. Hence, if an overseas candidate suffers any personal injury on account of negligence on the campus of a college or a university, he is entitled to claim damages, like an American graduate, from such an institution.

What is considered negligence for a college student accident?

Negligence, among other things, is the most common cause of tort action against colleges. A natural, probable, and proximate connection between the defendant’s breach of duty and the plaintiff’s damage is required to establish negligence. In the landmark judgment of Winn v. Posades, the Appellate Court of Connecticut held that in actions arising out of neglect for claiming damages, the plaintiff has to prove the four elements of negligence:

  • the defendant’s duty of care towards the plaintiff;
  • negligence by the defendant to exercise that duty;
  • a proximate cause between the defendant’s breach of duty and the plaintiff’s injury; and
  • damages sustained by the plaintiff as a consequence of such breach.

According to Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liability for Physical Harm, a person is said to act with negligence if he does not exercise reasonable care under all the circumstances. What may be deemed as suitable depends on the following factors:

  • the likelihood to foresee that such a negligent act will cause harm;
  • the severity of the damage that may ensue consequently; and
  • the burden of taking precautions that eliminate or reduce the possibility of injury.

As a general rule, it is the property owner’s responsibility to take due care and maintain his property. Any mishap as a consequence of such negligence of the property owner, ensuing in personal injury to any person, induces liability on such an owner.

Is a college different from business for cases of personal injury?

Until around the mid-20th century, the American courts had adopted the ‘in loco parentis’ doctrine whereby colleges stood at the same footing as parents of the students and exercised the same authority. Hence, the students practically had no legal recourse despite the college’s fault, and the colleges glorified autonomy over the college affairs and their insularity from legal scrutiny.

With the American Civil Rights Movement, students seized the opportunity to establish their fundamental civil rights. They compelled the judiciary to exercise judicial review over the irrational, unreasonable, and discriminatory practices of the college. Since then, the college safety laws have witnessed a paradigm shift in the then prevailing legal practices.

Any personal injury sustained by college students on an university campus due to the university’s negligence have evolved the personal injury laws and paved the way for college being at equal standing with business owners. Gradually, colleges have also been circumscribed within the scope of landlord-tenant duties whereunder a college is bound to render security to its students from foreseeable danger.

What status in the law are college students given?

The question arose concerning the extent of such obligation as the colleges were vested with the duty to exercise reasonable care towards students and the subsequent liability in case of any failure. The business owner’s responsibility varies with the status of the person, i.e., whether such an injured person is an invitee, a licensee, or a trespasser, with the maximum duty of care lying towards an invitee.

Miyamoto, in his Liability of Colleges and Universities for Injuries During Extracurricular Activities, noted that the U.S. courts have accepted ‘the duty to protect students under their status as invitees’ as one of the three theories of institutional duty arising out of the “special relationship” between colleges and students. When a law suit was brought against Temple University, alleging negligence in maintaining the staircase causing severe ankle fracture to the student, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the judgment passed in favor of the plaintiff entitling her to compensation for the injuries sustained by her. In another case where the plaintiff suffered damages on account of slipping on an icy sidewalk, the Missouri Court of Appeals acknowledged the student’s status as an invitee and the duty of the university to exercise reasonable care while maintaining the campus in safe conditions.

With respect to international students, a university owes the highest level of responsibility towards the international candidates as they stand at the same position of an invitee, and any injury caused to such an international candidate in the premises of the university, as a consequence of latter’s negligence, entitles the former to claim compensation.

What is the liability for a university for injury to a college student?

While the law entitles students to seek compensation for the injuries suffered as a consequence of negligence at the university’s end, the existence of liability and its extent significantly depends upon two factors, firstly that whether such a university is a private or a state university, and secondly, the state in which such university is established.

What is the liability for a public university?

The respective State laws regulate the State universities. Therefore, there is variance in whether there lies any duty at the university’s end and the consequent liability in case of negligence, the extent of such liability, and the immunities enjoyed by such universities.

In tort actions on negligence, public colleges may take the defense of ‘sovereign or governmental immunity’. Whether such an institution may take such protection depends on the state in which it is established.

Can universities claim any sort of immunity?

In light of the Eleventh Amendment to the American Constitution, the United States Supreme Court, interpreting the limitation beyond the letter of the law, held that the non-consenting States could not be sued by its own citizen. Such an impediment to instituting suits and the right to exercise sovereign immunity has been extended to public colleges and universities. Such a college or university can be classified as an ‘arm of the State’.

This implies that a public college or university does not default to a status as an ‘arm of the State’ and varies on a case-to-case basis. Instead, this status varies due to multiple factors, such as its origin, governance, financial structure, etc. For example, in a leading case, Clemson Agriculture College could not satisfy the requisites to be qualified as the arm of the state and hence, was denied the Eleventh Amendment Immunity by the United States Supreme Court.

The application of multiple-factor tests has enabled the courts to distinguish the status of the public colleges and universities and determine the right to immunity or the existence of liability.

The federal courts granted an exemption to the University of Kansas upon concluding that it was under the state control whereas denied to the Rutgers University upon inferring that the university was autonomous and subject to minimal state supervision.

The exercise of this immunity by the public universities and colleges may prevent them from any liability arising out of their negligence, ensuing in personal injury to the overseas graduates.

Therefore, holding a public university liable in such circumstances may be a challenging task. Nonetheless, the States are gradually shifting towards confining or abrogating sovereign immunity; for example, the State of Georgia enacted the Georgia Tort Claims Act after waiving off the state’s sovereign immunity. In a slip-and-fall case, where the parent of a student slipped on the wet floor of the school, the court of Pennsylvania denied the sovereign immunity defence claimed by the school and affirmed the defendant’s liability to compensate the plaintiff.

What is the liability for a private university?

Unlike public colleges and universities, their private counterparts do not enjoy the sovereign or governmental immunity. They are liable for any claims for compensation against personal injury arising out of their negligence. On the contrary, these institutions are regarded at par with the business owners or private corporations to determine their liability.

Nonetheless, the not-for-profit educational institutions have been vested with ‘charitable immunity defense’ against personal injury claims. The application of this defense, however, varies from state to state.

Is there a charitable immunity defence for personal injury?

In the case of Losada v. Princeton University, the plaintiff suffered injuries by falling in depression adjacent to the building of Princeton University. The Appellate Court upheld the decision passed by the Trial Court in favor of the university on the ground that the university qualified as a non-profit corporation organized exclusively for educational purposes under the Charitable Immunity Act and that the plaintiff was a beneficiary of the work of such non-profit corporation.

In another case where the parents of a student fell out of the residence hall window and died, the university exercised the charitable immunity defense, and the jury of the New Jersey appellate court did not award any damages. Where the plaintiff fell on the stairway, injuring himself, and brought a tort action against Montclair State University, the university was construed as a not-for-profit institution organized for exclusively educational purposes. The charitable immunity doctrine, therefore, shielded it.

The non-profit colleges and universities, however, cannot exploit this defense in case of torts arising out of their profit activities.

Conclusion

The status of a college student does not hold any bearing on the right of the college student to claim personal injury damages from an American college or university under the latter’s premises liability. They stand at the same footing as an American candidate to claim the compensation. Whether such an institution is liable for such a negligent act depends on the institution’s nature, public or private, and the prevailing laws and practices of the state where it is established.

By Anushri Maskara, Attorney



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