CHICAGO (CN) - The 7th Circuit reinstated the tort claims of an undergraduate who was raped in her dorm room by two strangers, admitting expert testimony that the university failed to achieve campus safety standards.
Katherine Lees began her freshman year in 2008 at Carthage College, a 2,500-student private college just north of Kenosha, Wisc. Lees, a hearing-impaired California resident, lived in an all-female dormitory known as Tarble Hall.
About 1,500 of Carthage College's students live on campus. Dormitories are locked 24 hours a day and require a student ID card for access. Student resident assistants patrol dormitory halls until 2:30 a.m. on weekends, but campus security officers are not stationed in each dorm at night.
In the early morning hours of Sept. 21, two men entered Lees' room. "One of the men then raped Lees while the other held her down," the 7th Circuit wrote in its summary. "Lees was able to punch the second man in the face when he tried to assault her, which caused both men to flee. She believes the two men were Carthage students because one was wearing a 'Carthage football' sweatshirt and the other a 'Carthage' T-shirt. The assailants were never identified. Lees later withdrew from Carthage."
Lees then sued the college for negligence, in Federal Court. To show that Carthage College failed to meet the standard of care, she offered testimony from Daniel Kennedy, Ph.D.
Kennedy, a premises-security expert, reported numerous security deficiencies on campus. He concluded that the school failed to meet safety criteria of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA). Kennedy stated that Carthage College's history of sexual assault, including five recorded incidents in 2007 alone, made Lees' case foreseeable.
But U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa excluded Kennedy's testimony after concluding that his methods were unreliable.
According to Randa, IACLEA's standards could not establish a standard of care because they were aspirational, and did not account for variation between academic environments.
Also, Randa found that the previous sexual assaults at the school involved acquaintance rape, while the attack on Lees was a case of stranger rape. Because different measures would be needed to deter each type of rape, Randa wrote, the school could not have reasonably foreseen Lee's injury.
Without Kennedy's testimony, Lees lacked evidence necessary to prove her claim. Randa entered summary judgment for the defendants.
But the 7th Circuit vacated portions of Randa's ruling on appeal, ruling that some of Kennedy's testimony was admissible.
"The main point of contention is whether Dr. Kennedy followed a reliable methodology in reaching his conclusions and reliably applied it to the specific facts of this case," Judge Diane Sykes wrote for the three-judge panel.
"With regard to the IACLEA standards, there is no question that these guidelines, standing alone, do not establish the standard of care. As the district court noted, they are only aspirational practices, not a formal industry standard; even formal industry standards are not dispositive as to negligence liability."
But the relevant question for determining admissibility, Sykes wrote, does not turn on whether the guidelines are "controlling in the sense of an industry code."
"It is only whether consulting them is a methodologically sound practice on which to base an expert opinion in the context of this case. For a claim of this nature, we are convinced that it is."
Carthage is free to argue that the guidelines are "only advisory, or outdated, or overly general, and for those reasons should not be taken as persuasive on the standard of care," but such criticisms go to the weight of the testimony rather than its admissibility.
The 7th Circuit rejected Randa's holding that Kennedy should have compared security practices at Carthage to similarly sized schools nearby.
"Local custom or practice may be evidence of the applicable standard of care, but they do not establish the standard of care any more than national industry guidelines. Again, Carthage is free to argue that community standards would have been a preferable benchmark, but that again is a matter of evidentiary weight, not admissibility," Sykes wrote.
Finally, testimony about an insecure basement door in Lees' dorm, which could be left propped open indefinitely without sounding an alarm, is reliably linked to the facts of the case and should have been admitted.
With these portions of Kennedy's testimony admissible, the 7th Circuit remanded for trial.
The university's insurer, Lexington Insurance Company, is also a defendant.
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