Liability lament


The college puts up these yellow signs reading ‘caution, wet floor’. If a student falls, is the school off the hook?

There is no humor in a student being injured on campus. If you have visited Student Health Services, you appreciate accidents happen every day, many serious enough to require medical attention. Those yellow signs warn about potential slip-and-falls and the college has other measures to protect against auto accidents, assault and other on-campus safety issues.

Liability and legal issues are usually a somewhat grey area so we need to look at some terminology first. Negligence, in the legal sense, implies a failure in law to do what a reasonable person would have done in the circumstances. To establish liability you must first establish that the college owed a duty of care to its students.

Duty of care depends on the nature of the relationship between the defendant and the litigant, your control over the situation that gave rise to the accident, ethical, moral and human rights considerations and the severity of harm caused. Reasonable foreseeability determines whether the student was aware of the risks, in this case a slippery floor.

Universities are not always legally responsible and two presiding factors can have an influence on the outcome. The first assumption is that you were injured on campus, college owned property. The second factor raises the question was the university aware of the issue and did they neglect to resolve it, leading to your accident. The college does have a general duty to protect students from foreseeable harm while on campus.

The physical conditions of the school buildings, fixtures and fittings such as slippery floors, loose roof tiles, dangerous wiring or unsafe dormitories are the responsibility of the university. The college must take reasonable safeguards to prevent accident or injury which can also be caused by staff or other students.

Safety must be ensured by the university by implementing measures such as staff screening and policies for accident mitigation and prevention.

Sovereign immunity laws are in place in many states, these are setup to shield public institutions, including universities, from being sued except when special circumstances arise. This legal concept dates back centuries and is derived from British common law that protected the monarchy from lawsuits.

The procedures governing lawsuits against colleges vary from state to state, usually you have 90 days to notify the state of a pending injury claim. This gives the public agency time to file a response.

Depending on the state, you may have to prove that the college was in breach of duty of care and negligently permitted an unsafe condition to perpetuate, in other words the campus failed to repair or resolve the hazard.

If you are unfortunate enough to have an injury on campus, you can protect your rights by taking a few steps. Firstly, you must seek medical attention, usually at student health services, which will be documented. Secondly, use your phone to document the scene and your injuries by photographing or filming it. Finally, you can seek advice from a personal injury lawyer who will counsel on your legal standing. Be aware of those ancient sovereign immunity laws though that apply to public universities.

Don’t worry, you’re still hot even in the hospital gown… Rainbowbrook.

Written by Martin J. Young, former correspondent of Asia Times.

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