Massachusetts SJC Clarifies Colleges & Universities’ Liability to Intoxicated Students

In a narrow, but nonetheless positive decision in the area of public safety at Massachusetts colleges and universities, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recently issue a ruling that clarifies and confirms a University’s legal obligations to intoxicated students.  Previous to this ruling, colleges and universities almost universally took the attitude that they had no legal duty to safeguard their students from harm caused or aggravated by intoxication.

A brief background on the case history:

A Northeastern University student attended a campus party and became visibly intoxicated, even vomiting at the party location.  She was escorted back to her dorm by another male student, and the two were seen kissing en route to the dorm.  When at the alleged victim’s dorm room, the two students engaged in sex, which the plaintiff alleged was initiated by the male student.  The next day, the plaintiff told her roommate about the encounter, stating that if she had not been drunk, she would not have had sex with the other student.  The roommate then told the dorm RA of the incident, which caused the University to undertake an investigation as to whether a rape or other non-consensual sex occurred between the two students.  The University found insufficient evidence to charge the other student.

Undeterred, the plaintiff then filed a negligence suit against Northeastern, arguing that the university had a legal duty to prevent the type of harm that she suffered (sexual assault).   A Superior Court judge granted the university’s motion for summary judgement.  This means that the judge found that, even in the plaintiff proved her case, there was no legal basis upon which Northeastern could be held liable.  This ruling effectively ended the case in Superior Court.  The plaintiff appealed to the SJC, which issued a split ruling.

The court acknowledged that it would be “inappropriate and unrealistic” to require universities to monitor and police all use of alcohol on campus, that it simply could not know such granular information – i.e., who was drinking with whom, how much were they drinking, and where were they drinking.  Such information falls under the legal heading of “actual knowledge”, and because the evidence in this case showed that Northeastern University had no such detailed information, the SJC affirmed the Superior Court’s ruling that Northeastern was not liable to the plaintiff in this case.

However, the legal bright spot in this case is that the SJC, for the first time, articulated that colleges and universities (or “Institutes of Higher Education/ICE’s”), do have a “special relationship” with their students, leading to certain legal responsibilities.  Specifically, the court found that because of this special relationship, a university or college has a legal duty to undertake reasonable measures to protect students from alcohol-related harm, if two conditions exist:   1)  If the school (its employees & agents, etc.) has “actual knowledge” of circumstances or conditions which indicate that: 2)  A student is in “imminent danger” due to intoxication.  Such twin circumstances existing simultaneously may be few, but this ruling is a step forward for plaintiffs’ civil justice rights (note:  That’s not “civil rights”, which deals with nondiscrimination.)

These kinds of sexual assault cases, whether they take place on a college campus or elsewhere, fall under an area of law known as “Premises Liability”.  As a Massachusetts premises liability lawyer, I’m glad to see this decision.  Granted, the legal ruling is narrow, but it establishes a clear and sharp departure from the “bystander era”, when colleges and universities could successfully argue that they had no more duty to protect their students from harm caused by intoxication, than did “the average bystander”.  Indeed, retiring SJC justice Barbara Lenk noted in the decision, “The ‘bystander’ era from which ‘no duty’ decisions emerged [for colleges and universities] appears to be drawing to a close.”

And that’s something that students attending Massachusetts colleges & universities, and their parents, can be grateful for.  Should you have any questions about the area of Massachusetts premises liability law or Massachusetts college and university liability, please don’t hesitate to call us.  There is no charge to confidentially discuss your concerns with us.