(CN) – The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that colleges owe their students safety and protection from foreseeable violence in the classroom, reversing an appeals court’s finding that UCLA did not have a duty to protect a student who was attacked with a knife by a classmate in a chemistry lab.
“All college students who hope to obtain a degree must attend classes and required laboratory sessions. It is reasonable for them to expect that their schools will provide some measure of safety in the classroom,” Justice Carol Corrigan wrote for the majority.
The case arises from Damon Thompson’s knife attack on fellow student Katherine Rosen in October 2009.
Several months prior to the stabbing, UCLA had treated Thompson for paranoia, auditory hallucinations and other symptoms that indicate schizophrenia disorder.
He accepted psychological treatment after complaining to professors that other students had made “accusations of a sexual nature” about him, invaded his privacy and made “offensive comments” to him.
A UCLA psychologist diagnosed Thompson with possible schizophrenia disorder in spring 2009 but concluded that he did not show signs of suicidal or homicidal ideation.
He withdrew from treatment after only a few months. During the following school year, Thompson suddenly attacked Rosen with a kitchen knife during a chemistry lab.
Rosen sued several UCLA employees and the Regents of the University of California for negligence, claiming they owed her a duty of protection from Thompson’s allegedly foreseeable violent acts.
In 2015, the California Court of Appeals’ Second District reversed the lower court’s denial of the university’s motion to dismiss, and the state Supreme Court overturned that ruling Thursday.
“When circumstances put a school on notice that a student is at risk to commit violence against other students, the school’s failure to take appropriate steps to warn or protect foreseeable victims can be causally connected to injuries the victims suffer as a result of that violence,” Justice Corrigan wrote. “Although a criminal act is always shocking to some degree, it is not completely unpredictable if a defendant is aware of the risk.”
Stephen Newman, a lawyer at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP in Los Angeles, said the reversal has broad implications for all levels of public schools in California.
“This places schools and teachers in a challenging position in that they may feel compelled to permanently remove emotionally distressed students from the classroom, even when those students are receiving mental health treatment, rather than risk liability for a rare but horrific event,” Newman said via email.
He added, “It is not clear to me what specific security measure — short of full expulsion— could have provided adequate protection here, given the sudden and unprovoked nature of the attack.”
The court framed its ruling in light of the distressing frequency of on-campus violence in the last 10 years, including an April 16, 2007, attack at Virginia Tech by an underclassman who shot and killed five professors and 24 students before turning his gun on himself.
“Violent unprovoked attacks by and against college students, while still relatively uncommon, are happening more frequently,” Corrigan wrote. “Thus, particularly after the Virginia Tech shootings focused national attention on the issue, colleges have been alert to the possibility that students, particularly those with mental health issues, may lash out violently against those around them. Even a comparatively rare classroom attack is a foreseeable occurrence that colleges have been equipping themselves to address for at least the past decade.”
In some cases, violence may not be all that difficult to foresee. Nikolas Cruz displayed several red flags to law enforcement and school officials two years before his Feb. 14 murder of 17 students at the Florida high school he once attended. The Miami Herald reported that his disturbing behavior, including threats to shoot up the school, was repeatedly reported to authorities, and the high school had promised to conduct a threat assessment.
In its ruling Thursday, the California high court was careful to emphasize that duty of care does not always equal liability.
Corrigan wrote, “Colleges are not the ultimate insurers of all student safety. We simply hold that they have a duty to act with reasonable care when aware of a foreseeable threat of violence in a curricular setting. Reasonable care will vary under the circumstances of each case. Moreover, some assaults may be unavoidable despite a college’s best efforts to prevent them. Courts and juries should be cautioned to avoid judging liability based on hindsight.”
Corrigan was joined by Justices Goodwin Liu, Leondra Krueger, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Associate Justice James Richman, a state appeals court judge sitting by designation, filling a vacancy left by retired Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar.
Justice Ming Chin wrote a concurring opinion that disagreed in part with his colleagues, writing that the court should show restraint in addressing a university’s duty to warn beyond the classroom.
“Indeed, the extent of a university’s control in a nonclassroom setting varies considerably depending on the particular activity and the particular setting,” he wrote. “It may be that, as to any given non-classroom activity, a university’s control is sufficient, from a public policy perspective, to impose a duty to protect or warn. But I would leave that question for a case that presents the issue on concrete facts, rather than broadly conclude, in a case involving classroom activity, that a university’s control in nonclassroom settings is sufficient to impose a duty to protect or to warn.”
The justices remanded the case back to the appeals court to determine whether UCLA breached its duty of care.
“In regard to breach, we note that the appropriate standard of care for judging the reasonableness of the university’s actions remains an open question, which the parties are free to litigate on remand,” Corrigan wrote. “UCLA’s argument that there was little more it reasonably could have done to prevent the assault may be relevant to this determination.”