June 5, 2002

Potential Civil Liability for Criminal Acts on College and University Campuses

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Alan J. Watson

The media often focuses on crimes committed at colleges and universities or committed  by students on and off campus.  Whether an assault by a student-athlete, dorm theft, drunk driving or more heinous crimes, the media raises the profile of criminal behavior on campus, even if only tangentially related to the school or its student body.  Colleges and universities everywhere should be concerned about possible civil liability for injuries resulting from these actions.

In most states, the general rule is that the law does not impose liability on schools for the criminal actions of third parties unless there is a special relationship between the school and either the person injured or the person causing the injury.  At the grade school level, the special relationship nearly always exists between students and schools, stemming principally from the state's requirement to provide an education. 

Colleges and universities do not have the same automatic special relationship.  When a special relationship exists, it is not easily quantified.  Although colleges and universities have been held liable for others' criminal acts on and off campus, case law supportive of  colleges and universities exists - finding no special relationship to protect students from criminal acts off campus at fraternity housing.  Keep in mind that defending a liability claim, or taking precautionary steps to prevent the claim, depends greatly upon the location of the campus and the unique circumstances of each situation.  As there is not automatic liability associated with criminal acts, and in fact there are many circumstances that would preclude liability or allow for implementations that could avoid liability, it is import to assess each situation fully and critically.

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