University Administrators Not Liable for Student’s Fatal Overdose
When a young student dies by her own hand, whether intentionally or from reckless conduct, the event is so tragic that it seems unfair, even inhumane, to hold the student solely responsible. It is natural to ask whether others should be held accountable and to question what could have been done to prevent such a tragedy. Yet, under what circumstances is it just to hold others accountable for self-inflicted injuries?
A Massachusetts trial court recently faced these difficult questions and ruled that university administrators are not liable for a student’s fatal use of heroin on campus, nor are the administrators liable for general representations about the safety of students on campus. The case is Daniel Bash v. Clark University, Civil Action No. 06-745A (Worcester Superior Court 2007). Just two years earlier, another Massachusetts Superior Court ruled that university administrators can be held liable when a student’s suicide was reasonably foreseeable. See Shin v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 19 Mass. L. Rptr. 570 (Middlesex Superior Court 2005). The two decisions are not necessarily inconsistent. When viewed as complementary, the rulings provide helpful guidance to college and university administrators and their legal counsel in assessing how and when liability may arise from a student’s self-inflicted injuries.
In the Clark case, the student was a freshman who was not adjusting well to life on campus. Campus police reported at least one incident of intoxication, and her advisor suspected there were many more. She was placed on academic probation and referred to the University’s Counseling Center. Both parents and administrators suspected illegal drug use, but the student initially denied it. After further meetings with administrators, the student admitted to using heroin, but only once, and claimed she had stopped. This information was reported to her mother. Sadly, only one month later, the student was found dead in her dormitory room, apparently having overdosed on heroin.
The student’s father, on behalf of her estate, sued Clark and eight of its administrators for negligence in failing to protect his daughter and prevent her death, and for misrepresentations about the safety of students on the Clark campus. The Superior Court judge dismissed both claims.
The misrepresentation claims were based on statements in the student handbook that Clark would “ensure the health and safety of the individuals who are living and learning at Clark University,” and a statement by the Dean of Students that she would “get rid of heroin” on campus. The Court held that these generalized statements about health and safety do not create enforceable promises.
Exceptions Only for “Special Relationships”
Addressing whether Clark’s administrators could be liable for the student’s death, the Court first reaffirmed the general principle that a university has no duty to rescue or safeguard a student from conditions that the university did not create. Courts have recognized exceptions only where a “special relationship” with the student makes it reasonably foreseeable that the university should take affirmative safety precautions against known or anticipated dangers. The Court found no special relationship in this case.
The Court noted that no Massachusetts appellate decision has recognized a duty to protect students from the voluntary use of drugs or alcohol. Such a duty, the Court reasoned, would conflict with contemporary social values and customs. In loco parentis – the notion of a school acting in a parental role – “has no application to the relationship between a modern university and its students.” The notion “conflicts with society’s expanding right of privacy.”
Moreover, the Court concluded that the student’s death was not reasonably foreseeable to Clark or preventable. Expecting a university to prevent every student over 18 from using illegal drugs was “unrealistic,” and in this case, the university administrators had no reason to believe that this particular student was in imminent peril.
Campus Safety: Prior Decisions
The Clark court was careful to distinguish two earlier decisions involving campus safety. While a college may be responsible for providing adequate physical security to address foreseeable criminal intrusions into student dormitories, as the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recognized in Mullins v. Pine Manor, 389 Mass. 47 (1983), a college is not responsible for the “moral well being” of its students and the decisions they make. In Shin v. MIT, the Court found a special relationship existed because administrators were part of the student’s “treatment team,” knew of her suicidal behavior and could reasonably foresee a suicide attempt. In the Clark case, by contrast, the administrators’ involvement was of a much lower level, and they had no reason to believe that the student was in imminent danger.
What guidance can colleges and universities glean from these decisions? First, in Massachusetts there is no general duty to safeguard students from themselves or others. However, colleges and universities need to take reasonable measures to prevent reasonably foreseeable harm. Determining what is reasonable and foreseeable in a given case will require a detailed factual inquiry. With respect to self-inflicted injuries, liability for the institution and its administrators will depend upon how much they knew and how much they were involved – whether they assumed responsibility for any part of the student’s care or treatment – and whether the harm was reasonably foreseeable and preventable at the time it occurred.
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