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Student’s Claim Of Negligence Against College Proceeds Where College Arranged Study Abroad Trip, Maintained A Presence During The Trip, And Assumed Responsibility Over Student’s Health And Safety During The Trip
Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) coordinated and sponsored a four-week study abroad program to Ireland during the summer of 2016. RISD arranged for housing accommodations for the student participants with the help of a host school in Ireland, the Burren College of Art (Burren). Burren located accommodations for the students in three adjacent houses, which were part of a local hotel, and RISD approved the accommodations. RISD did not provide Burren any expectations or requirements for necessary security measures.
RISD permitted students to select either a single or double occupancy room and used that information to assign students to accommodations in one of the three houses. RISD required student participants to reside in the designated housing accommodations. The cost of the housing accommodations was included in the tuition cost of the study abroad program.
An RISD faculty advisor and a teaching assistant/student resident accompanied the students on the trip. Among the teaching assistant/student resident’s job duties was to orient students to their housing accommodations and to assist students with their health and safety during the trip.
Once in Ireland, the RISD faculty advisor and the teaching assistant/student resident met with their contact at Burren, who told them that each of the three houses only had one key to lock and unlock its exterior door. The contact at Burren recommended that they decide on a hiding place for the keys and seek input from the students. The three did not discuss whether the bedrooms inside the houses had locks or keys. The teaching assistant/student resident stayed in one of the three houses with the students.
Jane and John were among the group of students who participated in the study abroad program. On the first night in Ireland, the students went out for drinks to celebrate their arrival and John’s birthday. Afterward, John walked Jane back to her room. Jane kissed John on the cheek, John left, and Jane closed the door to her room. Jane was unable to lock her bedroom door, so Jane had to sleep with the door unlocked.
Later that night, Jane awoke to find that John was sexually assaulting her. Jane reported the incident to the teaching assistant/student resident and to RISD’s Title XI Office. John, who admitted to the sexual assault, was dismissed from the study abroad program and was suspended from RISD for three years.
Jane filed a lawsuit against RISD, alleging that RISD was negligent for failing to provide her with reasonably safe housing accommodations while participating in the study abroad trip. To prove her negligence claim under Rhode Island law, Jane had to show (1) RISD owed her a legally cognizable duty; (2) there was a breach of that duty; (3) there was proximate causation between the alleged conduct and the resulting injury; and (4) an actual loss or damages resulted.
RISD argued that Jane’s lawsuit could not proceed because RISD did not owe Jane a legally cognizable duty to protect against John’s illegal acts and, therefore, Jane could not fulfill the first element of her negligence claim. The main issue before the court was whether RISD owed Jane a legally cognizable duty.
The court found that the circumstances surrounding RISD’s arrangement and coordination of housing accommodations for Jane during the study abroad program gave rise to a special relationship between RISD and Jane. RISD selected the housing accommodations and required Jane and the other students to stay in the selected housing. Students had no control or input over where they stayed during the program other than to select a single or double occupancy room. RISD provided the service of arranging the housing as part of the study abroad program and received compensation for that service through the tuition costs collected from students for the program. Moreover, RISD maintained a presence at the location where the students stayed and made its employees responsible for the health and safety of the students staying there.
Because RISD undertook to provide housing accommodations for Jane in a foreign country, the court found that it was reasonable for Jane to expect that RISD would exercise reasonable care in providing such housing and for Jane to rely on that expectation. The court also noted that it was reasonably foreseeable that one of RISD’s students could be the victim of an attack if RISD did not provide reasonably safe housing accommodations. Not only is it generally foreseeable that “an atmosphere of violence could exist in housing shared among university students,” a student participating in an RISD study abroad program in Rome two years earlier was sexually assaulted in shared housing under similar circumstances.
The court opined that if a university undertakes to provide housing for its study abroad programs, “safety should be at the forefront of its considerations.” The court allowed Jane’s claim of negligence against RISD to proceed, which will be decided by a jury.
Doe v. Rhode Island School of Design (D.R.I., Dec. 18, 2019, No. CV 18-10-JJM-LDA) 2019 WL 6896660.
While this case is not binding in California, the California Supreme Court has held that universities have a special relationship with their students and a duty to protect them from foreseeable violence during curricular activities. This case highlights the importance of taking steps to protect students from foreseeable harms during school-sponsored activities where the school has some measure of control over students and the activity.