The death of a college student is a heartbreaking circumstance that affects all people who live, work, or study on campus, regardless of whether or not they knew the deceased individual. An intentional death of a student, whether a suicide or homicide, is not only tragic but frightening. Fellow students may wonder if they could be next, while family members of the deceased may wish to hold the college or university liable.
In some circumstances, it may be possible to hold an institution of higher learning responsible for the intentional death of a student. However, the plaintiffs must be able to prove both negligence and guilty knowledge on behalf of the administration.
Liability for Student Suicide
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts rendered a decision in 2018 stating that if the school has an indication that a student could be at risk of suicide and fails to act, it could be held liable if the student later does commit suicide. Such an indication may include a threat to commit suicide or a prior attempt. However, according to the decision, if the student gave no indication of his or her intentions beforehand, the school is not necessarily liable if the student commits suicide. Regulations vary by state, but the decision in Massachusetts could set a precedent that influences judges and legislators in other jurisdictions.
Liability for Student Murder
Until the mid-20th century, colleges and universities were expected to act in loco parentis over students, even those who had reached the age of majority. This gave administrators a large measure of control over students’ lives, but it also meant that they were liable for any student misconduct. Student protests in the 1960s and ’70s changed this norm, and as a result, the pendulum swung in the other direction. While students gained greater freedom, courts were no longer holding colleges and universities liable for wrongful deaths of students, whether accidental or intentional, even if school officials behaved in a way that clearly put students in unreasonable danger.
Today, while the courts no longer hold schools completely liable for misconduct of their students, they do expect that the administration owes a certain duty to provide students a reasonably safe environment in which to live and study. If there is a known condition that exists to put students in danger, such as abusive hazing rituals or faulty door locks that allow access to unauthorized personnel, and the administration does nothing to correct it, that level of negligence may be sufficient to hold the school responsible in the event that a student dies due to the willful actions of others. However, it can be difficult to prove that the administration knew about the condition beforehand.
A wrongful death lawyer in Houston, TX may be able to clarify your legal options in the confusion of your grief. Contact a law office for more information.
Thanks to John K. Zaid & Associates for their insight into personal injury claims and college liability in a wrongful death case.