Once again California has moved ahead of other states in expanding exposure to tort liability, ruling a university has a duty to protect students from foreseeable violence. Regents of the University of California v. Superior Court (Rosen), __ Cal.5th __ [2018 WL 2018 WL 1415703] (No. S230568, March 23, 2018). The California Supreme Court has led the nation in issuing similar pro-plaintiff decisions, such as its 1976 opinion in Tarasoff v. Regents of the University of California, where a mental health professional has a duty to individuals threatened by a patient.
In Regents, the facts also involved the mental health of a perpetrator. As a UCLA student in 2008, Damon Thompson reported hearing voices and wanting to hurt others. Staff at the UCLA hospital diagnosed him as possibly schizophrenic, and he agreed to take anti-psychotic medications and submit to sessions with the campus psychological services staff. Thompson apparently stopped taking the medications at some point, and his condition worsened over time. In October of 2009, in a UCLA chemistry lab, Thompson accused others of verbally harassing him, leading to referrals to the campus response team and psychiatric services. On October 8, Thompson repeatedly stabbed another student in the lab, Katharine Rosen.
Rosen, who survived the attack, sued the Regents and various UCLA employees for negligence, alleging UCLA had a “special relationship” with her as an enrolled student. Thus, she claimed, the university had a duty to protect her from reasonably foreseeable criminal conduct on its campus and in its buildings -- in this case, from a student whom UCLA knew to suffer from a serious and potentially dangerous mental illness. While the trial court found such a duty could exist, a divided Second District Court of Appeal overturned the trial court order, concluding: “[A] public university has no general duty to protect its students from the criminal acts of other students.”
In reversing, Supreme Court Associate Justice Carol Corrigan wrote for the seven-member court, and following Tarasoff, found a duty to control (and protect) may arise if the defendant has a “special relationship” with the foreseeably dangerous person that entails an ability to control that person’s conduct. The “special relationship” doctrine is an exception to the general rule there is no duty to protect others from the conduct of third parties. In reaching its conclusion, the Court examined today’s changing college environment, in which
“colleges provide a discrete community for their students. For many students, college is the first time they have lived away from home. Although college students may no longer be minors under the law, they may still be learning how to navigate the world as adults. They are dependent on their college communities to provide structure, guidance, and a safe learning environment.”
Thus, the Court concluded, the college-student relationship fits within the paradigm of a special relationship. Using factors in Rowland v. Christian (1968) 60 Cal.2d 108, the Court also analyzed various considerations of public policy and foreseeability. As to the latter, it concluded violence against students in the classroom or during curricular activities, while rare, is a foreseeable occurrence. With this conclusion and based on other Rowland factors, the Court concluded considerations of public policy do not justify categorically barring an injured student’s claims against the university.
A special concern of the Regents and many amici was whether recognizing a duty to warn and protect would discourage colleges from offering comprehensive mental health and crisis management services, much as UCLA provided to Damon Thompson. UCLA argued the effect of recognizing the duty here would give colleges an incentive to expel anyone who might pose a remote threat to others. The Court acknowledged this may in fact occur, and that schools might become reluctant to admit certain students or to offer mental health treatment. But the Court pointed to obligations the colleges already have under the Americans with Disabilities Act (42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.), and under most violence prevention protocols adopted in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting incident. The Court also dismissed concerns that this duty would deter students from seeking treatment or irreparably damage the psychotherapist-patient relationship. It referenced studies that have shown no evidence that patients have been discouraged from coming to therapy or that they fear breaches of their confidentiality. Ultimately, the Court found “[r]ecognizing that the university owes its students a duty of care under certain circumstances is unlikely to appreciably change this landscape.” Finally, the Court noted the plaintiff must still prove a breach and the lack of immunities, and remanded the matter for further proceedings.
The opinion articulated the duty to warn or protect is limited to “curricular activities” and to activities “closely related to the delivery of educational services.” On the latter point, Justice Ming Chin concurred in the judgment, but did not agree the duty to protect extends beyond the classroom.
Tom Gede is of Counsel at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, and is a former Deputy and Special Assistant Attorney General for the state of California. By way of disclosure, Mr. Gede is a member of the Board of Directors of University of California, Hastings College of the Law, but the College took no part in the litigation.