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Guest v. Hansen--How the Decision Places Students at Risk

Questionable actions of college personnel which do not create a legal duty to act 

Although not stated explicitly in the decision, by finding that duty did not carry to the neighboring property, the Second Circuit effectively states that all of the negative aspects of Paul Smith's College's actions that night and during the previous months can all be continued without the risk of causing a legal duty to attach in cases of student injuries occurring off campus property.  This is the case even when the college can be judged to be a significant contributor to such dangers and is witness to the dangers prior to an injury or death.  All of the points summarized below were included in the record and presented to the Court in the Statement of Facts included in the Estate's brief.  Most of these failings were included in the Circuit Court's opinion's background facts, thereby, confirming that the record sufficiently supported such facts, although they would still need to be proven at trial if one was warranted.  The source documents supporting these facts are references in the Statement of Facts contained in the Estate's brief filed with the Circuit Court. 

The actions demonstrating disregard for student safety presented to the Court who found lack of duty are:

  • Colleges have no legal problem if its safety and security operations are dysfunctional and this dysfunction can be shown to be a direct contributing factor to student deaths.
  • Colleges can generally ignore repeated incidences of dangerous and potentially criminal activities, such as driving while intoxicated, which often has deadly consequences.
  • A college official who is responsible for student safety can witnesses a student party just off campus grounds where risky activities associated with alcohol are very evident.   The official’s reason not to take any meaningful measures to halt the activities can be that she was concerned that it would cause a riot, thereby demonstrating that she recognized things were out of control.  The official can leave the scene with the party continuing unabated; and not be held legally responsible for two student deaths occurring only hours from the time college personnel left the scene.
  • A college can supply materials essential to have a lengthy party, such as wood for a bonfire on a freezing night, and not have a duty to intervene when they know that dangerous activities are underway, as long as the party is off campus.
  • Campus parties and other dangerous and reckless activities can begin on campus and move off campus grounds, but still in full sight of campus, and the college has no duty to intervene even when the off-campus activities are witnessed by security and other personnel.  This is true even when the proximity of the party to campus allows the students to repeatedly return to campus for warmth on a frigid night, effectively allowing the party to extend into the early morning hours.
  • A college can be forewarned about a lack of student concern for the dangers of an illegal activity, such as driving while intoxicated, without creating a duty to intervene when safety personnel witness such activities on neighboring property.  Some forewarnings which may occur that has been held not sufficient to create duty are:
    • The recent death of a intoxicated student in an automobile accident while returning to campus,
    • Witnessing a truck doing donuts on a frozen lake next to campus and when the student driver is confront by safety personnel, they find him intoxicated with many empty containers in his truck, and
    • Being called to a student party on neighboring property to investigate possible injuries from an accident associated with risky activities, with student deaths resulting only hours later from the same reckless activity.
  • A college campus is located in a remote area which likely would still be considered wilderness if it were not for the presence of the campus.  The college owns most of the property surrounding an adjoining lake, with the presence only a few seasonal cottages owned by others and the campus itself bordering the lake.  Therefore, no possible oversight other than campus safety is in position to address dangerous activities in which students are involved.  The administration knows this, as do the students and the State Police, who when called in the previous night by campus safety to address a dangerous situation stated as they left campus that if campus safety observed any unsafe or illegal behavior that the State Police should be contacted immediately.  During the following night, college personnel responsible for student safety witness a bonfire party on the lake involving a significant portion of the student population many of whom are involved in dangerous activities.  The college officials leave the sense without attempting to address the witnessed dangerous activities.
  • A college can witness a reckless activity involving drinking students and “not undertake to stop” the activity; in fact, they can adopt “a hands-off approach, implying their acquiescence in the continuation of a dangerous activity that was already underway.”  The portion in quotes are directly from the District Court’s decision which reads in total: “The evidence establishes that Marra and Shova did not undertake to stop the party; in fact, they adopted a hands-off approach, implying their acquiescence in the continuation of a dangerous activity that was already underway.”
  • A college can have knowledge of and be witness to dangerous activities and choose not to take effective measures.  When those same dangers occur just off campus, a college again can have knowledge of and witness those dangers and again not take any effective action with no concern of legal exposure.  While the Court’s decision clearly held that this applied to students repeatedly driving while intoxicated, what other illegal student behaviors also are exempt from the scrutiny of college security?  Assault?  Rape?   Murder?   Driving while intoxicated has consequences as extreme as these other offenses. 

Each of these examples can well be viewed as so extreme that one may conclude that no college would allow that to happen.  However, all were present and did occur at Paul Smith's College prior to two student deaths in a snowmobile accident.  Still, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals refused to conclude that the College contributed to or created the dangers on the neighboring property, thereby, effectively putting their blessing on a college not being concerned by any and all of the cited failings.  While most would surely agree that a college has a moral obligation to act in each of these situations, the fact that no legal duty exists may limit a college’s actions for fear of creating duty when duty would not otherwise exists.  The predisposition towards inaction comes at the cost of student safety. 

More information on the case can is available through the following links.

Links to Documents in the Court Record Links to Commentary

 

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In loving Memory of Kristine Guest