Massachusetts Supreme Court Finds University Owes A Duty To Protect A Drunk Student From Harm Where The University Is On Notice Of Foreseeable Harm

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Dec 09, 2020

In fall 2013, Morgan Helfman (Helfman) and A.G. were freshmen at Northeastern University (Northeastern) and lived in the same dormitory.  The dormitories at Northeastern are supervised by resident assistants (RAs), who are students hired to serve as role models to the student residents, perform rounds of their assigned dormitory, intervene and report students violating Northeastern’s code of student conduct, and regulate access to the dormitory.

In October 2013, Helfman and A.G. drank alcohol in Helfman’s dorm room and then went to a Halloween party hosted by an RA, Sarah Smith (Smith), from a different dormitory.  At the party, Helfman and A.G. drank more alcohol, which they brought to the party themselves, and played drinking games with Smith and another RA, Paul Jones (Jones).  Neither Smith nor Jones, who were both underages, supplied alcohol to Helfman, A.G., or any other guest, but did observe Helfman and A.G. drinking alcohol.

After the party, Helfman and A.G. walked back to their dormitory together.  During the walk, Helfman sent a text message to her roommate that said “Okay [sic] I’m coming home [sic] I’m really sick” and Helfman stumbled and fell.  When Helfman and A.G. checked into their dormitory with the RA on duty, Helfman leaned on the counter for support and then walked unsteadily from the RA’s desk to the elevator.  Once in A.G.’s room, A.G. initiated sex and although Helfman “was very uncomfortable with what was going on, she didn’t want to hurt his feelings by saying anything to him or telling him to stop.”  Helfman also “wasn’t scared,” did not feel as if she could not have left if she wanted to, and was unsure whether A.G. believed she had consented to sex.

The next morning, Helfman told her roommate about the incident with A.G., and her roommate, with Helfman’s permission, told an RA about the incident.  The next day, the Northeastern police escorted Helfman and her mother to a local hospital, where Helfman was examined and an evidence collection kit was completed.  Northeastern police completed an investigation but decided not to file any criminal charges against A.G. or report the incident to Boston police.  Based on the Northeastern police investigation, the Office of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution (OSCCR) charged A.G. with “sexual assault with penetration.”  A student conduct board (SCB) hearing was held and the SCB ultimately held that A.G. had not committed the alleged offense.  Helfman’s appeal of the decision did not change the SCB’s finding.

Helfman filed a claim against Northeastern alleging that Northeastern negligently failed to prevent the sexual assault, contributed to its occurrence, and failed to respond adequately to the incident.  The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Northeastern, finding that Helfman failed to establish essential elements of her case.

On appeal, the court noted that it has “long [] recognized that universities have a duty to protect students from the foreseeable criminal acts of third parties” and “[s]uch a duty exists even when those criminal acts are made possible by the intoxication of the student victim.”  The court further recognized that a college or university may owe a duty to protect its students from the foreseeable harms associated with alcohol-related emergencies because “dangerous drinking-related activities are a foreseeable hazard on college and university campuses.”  The court noted that the responsibility of colleges to protect students from alcohol-related emergencies is triggered when a college or university has “actual knowledge” that a student on campus “is in imminent danger of serious physical harm due to alcohol intoxication” and when a student is “so intoxicated that the student is incapable of seeking help for him- or herself.”  The court concluded that Northeastern had no duty to protect Helfman in this matter because Northeastern “had at best minimal knowledge of the conditions that gave rise to the particular harm, rendering this assault unforeseeable.”  The court explained that the RAs at the party and the RA who checked Helfman and A.G. in at the dormitory could not have reasonably known that Helfman was at risk of being sexually assaulted.  Therefore, the court ruled against Helfman’s claims and affirmed the trial court’s ruling.

Helfman v. Northeastern University (2020) 485 Mass. 308.

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