DOES A UNIVERSITY HAVE AN OBLIGATION TO PROTECT ITS STUDENTS FROM SEXUAL ASSAULTS OCCURRING IN DORMITORIES?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Nero v. Kansas State University, 253 Kan. 567, 861 P.2d 768 (1993).
This case addresses the following issue:
Does a university have an obligation to protect its students from sexual assaults occurring in dormitories?
This case arose from a sexual assault by a student on Plaintiff, also a student of Defendant. Id. at 584-85. Plaintiff argued that she and Defendant were in a special relationship, which imposed a legal duty on Defendant to protect Plaintiff from foreseeable criminal acts of third-parties. Id. at 571. The court found that such a relationship did exist, though not arising from the fact that Plaintiff was a student at Defendant’s university, but instead from the fact that Plaintiff was a tenant and Defendant her landlord. Id. at 585. Thus, Defendant had a duty to warn and protect Plaintiff from foreseeable crimes such as the one that happened. Id.
Plaintiff was a student at Defendant’s university. Id. at 569. Plaintiff was also a resident of a dormitory owned by Defendant. Id. Several months prior to Plaintiff enrolling for classes with Defendant, another male student of Defendant was accused of raping a female student in a dormitory. Id. He was moved to an all-male dormitory while the incident was investigated. Id. However, for summer classes, only one dorm was open and it was co-ed. Id. at 570. The male student was moved into this dorm, along with the newly enrolled Plaintiff. Id. Plaintiff was sexually assaulted by the student. Id. She reported the assault and the male student was immediately expelled. Id.
The court began by noting that, absent a “special relationship,” Kansas law imposes no duty on a person or business to protect another from foreseeable criminal attacks. Id. at 571. There may also be a special relationship between parties requiring that one party exercise control over the other to prevent harm acts to third parties, such as a parent’s obligation to control a child. Id. at 572. However, Kansas had never recognized either of these relationships as imposing an obligation on a university to protect or control students. Id. Further, cases from other states offered little support for imposing either type of duty. Id. at 573-75. Based on these authorities, the court found “the university-student relationship does not in and of itself impose a duty” to either protect or to control its students. Id. at 580.
This wasn’t the end of the matter, however. Id. The court found that Defendant, by undertaking to offer residency in its dorms, went beyond the university-student relationship. Id. at 580-81. “Defendant is a landlord furnishing housing to its students in competition with private landlords.” Id. at 583. By willingly assuming this additional duty, Defendant “owed a duty of reasonable care to its tenants,” including the duty to warn or prevent foreseeable criminal acts—just as any other landlord would owe his tenants. Id. Because the assault that occurred here was both reasonably foreseeable and within the control of Defendant to prevent, Defendant was liable for Plaintiff’s injuries suffered as a result of the attack. Id. at 585.