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Colleges and Universities May Be Liable to Intoxicated Students for Failing to Take Reasonable Steps to Protect Them From Harm

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) has created an actionable duty of care of colleges and universities to helplessly intoxicated students. On July 27, 2020, the court held that, where a college or university has actual knowledge of conditions that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a student is in imminent danger of serious harm due to intoxication, and the student is unable to protect him- or herself, the college or university has a duty to take reasonable steps to protect the student from harm. This decision has far-reaching consequences for colleges and universities, as well as insurers alike.

The case arose from an alleged sexual assault in 2013 at Northeastern University. The plaintiff alleged that dorm resident assistants were aware of her extreme intoxication and yet failed to prevent an alleged sexual assault by another student. The alleged assailant, who lived in the plaintiff’s dorm, walked her home from a party in another dorm. The incident allegedly occurred in the alleged assailant’s dorm room upon their return.

The plaintiff claimed that Northeastern University was liable because it failed to protect her from the alleged sexual assault. The SJC recognized that, although one generally owes no duty to protect another from conditions that one did not create, such a duty may arise via a special relationship. The court previously had held that colleges and universities have a special relationship with their students because they not only provide education, but also basic necessities such as housing and food, as well as activities. This relationship exists even in the face of a student’s voluntary intoxication. Due to this special relationship, a duty may arise to protect intoxicated students from harm.

This duty is limited, however, to a “narrow” set of circumstances. The college or university must have “actual knowledge” of conditions that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the student is in “imminent danger” of “serious physical harm” due to intoxication, and unable to seek help themselves. Equipped with such knowledge, the college or university must “act reasonably under the circumstances,” which may include calling for medical or other assistance.

In the present case, the court concluded that Northeastern University did not owe a duty to the plaintiff. Neither an alleged sexual assault nor imminent harm from alcohol intoxication was foreseeable, according to the court. The university had no knowledge of any prior issues with the alleged assailant, and there was no indication that he was acting inappropriately towards the plaintiff in public. Moreover, even had the resident assistants’ observations been imputed to the university, the plaintiff did not appear in peril. She was talking to other students, texting, drinking water, eating crackers, walking, and sobering up. Under these circumstances, it was not unreasonable to allow the plaintiff to be escorted home by another student. And, mere intoxication in the company of a person of the opposite sex did not alone constitute a risk of harm necessary to trigger a duty of protection.

The case is Helfman v. Northeastern University, No. SJC-12787, 2020 WL 4280070 (Mass. July 27, 2020).

This decision opens up colleges and universities to more exposure for harm from sexual assault and alcohol abuse by students. The prevalence of binge drinking on campuses, as noted by the court, make this risk particularly concerning. Colleges and universities should take great care in setting policies, training their staff, and implementing protections for students in these situations to avoid liability.

Anyone with questions about the impact of this decision should contact one of Conn Kavanaugh’s experienced attorneys.

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