Failed attempt to obtain Justice

Colleges' Responsibility for Student Safety

Circumstances Leading to Fatal Crash

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Legal Duty v. Moral Obligation to Act

One may view a party’s action or inaction as negligent, but whether a legal claim exists is dependent upon whether a legal duty exists.  Therefore, there is a distinction between legal duty and a moral obligation.  Legal duty can result in a civil claim.   Failure to fulfill a moral obligation can only make the negligent party feel bad, but only if that party so recognizes that moral duty exists (which unfortunately often is not the case.)   Most if not all legal duties also will be a moral duty.  However, many moral obligations that the norms of a civilized society would attach to an individual or institution do not constitute a legal duty.

For instance, if one sees a stranger drowning in a pool, no legal duty exists for that witness to rescue the potential drowning victim.  However, if that same individual takes some action to assist the victim, but without good reason withdraws from such effort, duty may now attach if the victim has been placed in a worse position because of the withdrawn efforts.  For example, this would result if another witness would have assisted but held back because of the other’s efforts.  Therefore, no legal obligation exists to attempt to rescue a drowning child, but society’s attachment of a moral duty will make an adult swimmer a pariah if he or she does not attempt a rescue. 

Analogous to this is where a college is held to have no legal duty to effectively intervene when the college knows students are at risk on property next to the campus.  Although no legal duty may attached, students, parents, and society in general would hope that the college would recognize and act upon its moral obligation.  This Paul Smith’s College chose not to do in a double tragedy in 2005, which is the central focus of this site (see details.) 

A federal district judge in this case saw the facts so compelling to include this statement in his ruling:

The evidence establishes that Marra and JS 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. (US District Court Decision; Guest v Hansen; 12/18/07)

Despite this troubling statement, the Court found no duty to act and granted a summary motion to dismiss.  Thus, this is a case where one would expect that college employees responsible for student safety would have a moral obligation to act, but the courts fail to find duty under the law (consider this to determine if you agree.)

Most parents and students likely believe that colleges and universities have a moral obligation to act in situations where a student is in danger even when no legal duty exists.   However, legal advisors to colleges and universities are known to advise those institutions to not become involved when no legal duty exists since becoming a little involved may well create legal duty when no legal duty would otherwise exist.  One would hope that when a college recognizes that student safety is at risk, it would act appropriately even though no legal duty existed.  However, that is not often the case Kristine Guest and Joshua Rau their lives.  Furthermore, even though a federal statute creates a legal obligation with monetary consequence to address a recognized student safety issues, colleges and universities are known not to respond when such law is not enforced. 

Did Paul Smith's College have at least a moral obligation to act? 

Full access to documents

  • duty n. 1) a legal obligation, the breach of which can result in liability. In a lawsuit a plaintiff must claim and prove that there was a duty by defendant to plaintiff. This can be a duty of care in a negligence case or a duty to perform in a contract case. 2) a tax on imports
  • duty of care n. a requirement that a person act toward others and the public with watchfulness, attention, caution and prudence that a reasonable person in the circumstances would. If a person's actions do not meet this standard of care, then the acts are considered negligent, and any damages resulting may be claimed in a lawsuit for negligence.

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In loving Memory of Kristine Guest



Colleges' Responsibility for Student Safety 


Circumstances Leading to Fatal Crash

Photos-Proximity of bon fire  to campus
Full Circuit Court Decision

Governmental Failure to Enforce Failure to Enforce Federal Law to Protect Students-Confirmed-see IG Report-3/14/12