Issued by: Charles S. Redfield

The Regents of the University of California, et al. v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County

California Supreme Court (March 23, 2018)

Defendant The Regents of the University of California was sued by a student who received serious injuries in an attack by another student in a U.C.L.A. classroom during class. For approximately one year before the attack, the attacker had displayed psychological and emotional problems, and U.C.L.A. had been aware of his problems. U.C.L.A. had compelled the attacker to receive psychological counseling, but the attacker’s psychological and emotional problems continued. Two days before the attack, the attacker had displayed paranoid and hostile behavior which caused a teaching assistant to send an e-mail to the Dean, requesting advice. The day before the attack, the attacker was supposed to meet with a university group required to evaluate troubled students, but he missed the meeting. U.C.L.A. did not do anything to prevent the attacker from attending classes despite the missed meeting.

The person who was attacked sued the Regents, U.C.L.A., and U.C.L.A. employees for failing to take reasonable protective measures to ensure her safety against a reasonably foreseeable attack by this attacker. The victim alleged that U.C.L.A. had been aware of the attacker’s dangerous propensities and had failed to warn or protect the victim from the attacker’s foreseeable violent conduct.

Defendants moved for summary judgment on three different grounds. One of the grounds was that colleges have no duty to protect their adult students from criminal acts. The victim argued that U.C.L.A. owed her a duty of care because colleges have a special relationship with students in the classroom. The trial court denied the motion for summary judgment. U.C.L.A. challenged this order in a petition for writ of mandate. The Court of Appeal granted the petition and held that U.C.L.A. owed no duty to protect the victim. The victim petitioned the California Supreme Court for review.

The California Supreme Court held that U.C.L.A. owed a duty of care to the victim based upon a special relationship which exists between a student and the university. While a person has a duty to act with reasonable care under the circumstances, a person who has not created a peril is not liable in tort merely for failing to take affirmative action to assist or protect another unless there is some relationship between them which gives rise to a duty to act. There must be a special relationship between a person who has not created a peril and the person who needs protection from someone else. The victim/plaintiff claimed that there was a special relationship between U.C.L.A. and her which required U.C.L.A. to protect the victim from the attacker. The California Supreme Court specifically held that post-secondary schools have a special relationship with students while they are engaged in activities that are part of the school’s curriculum or closely related to its delivery of educational services.

Once the California Supreme Court determined that there was a special relationship between U.C.L.A. and the victim, the California Supreme Court analyzed whether a duty should be imposed upon U.C.L.A. in this particular instance. After analyzing the factors to determine whether a duty existed set forth in the case of Rowland v. Christian (1968) 69 Cal.2d 108, the California Supreme Court determined that U.C.L.A. would have owed a duty to the victim to use reasonable care to protect U.C.L.A.’s students from foreseeable violence during curricular activities.

The California Supreme Court remanded the matter to the Court of Appeal to decide whether triable issues of material fact remained on the two other bases for defendant’s motion for summary judgment which were not considered by the Court of Appeal.

Comment:
This is the first Calif. case to find that a public college has a special relationship with its students while the students are engaged in activities that are part of the school’s curriculum or closely related to its delivery of educational services. This case expands the duty beyond Colleges having a duty to protect people visiting their campuses from reasonably foreseeable criminal activity on their physical grounds. Now, public colleges may have to consider whether a disturbed student poses a threat to other students.

For a copy of the complete decision, see: The Regents of the University of California, et al. v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County

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