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Duty of Colleges to Protect Students from Harm in Massachusetts

The Supreme Judicial Court holds that universities have a duty to protect their intoxicated students

The SJC has recently decided in Helfman v. Northeastern University, that colleges have a special duty of care to their students and must protect them even when they are voluntarily intoxicated.

What happened in Helfman?

            Helfman was a victim of rape by a fellow student after a Halloween party in 2013.  She was heavily intoxicated when another student, “A.G.,” walked her back to her dorm under the guise of helping her get home safely.  When the pair got back to the dormitory, the rape ensued. Helfman went to the hospital the next day to get a rape kit, and she contacted both the school and the university police about the incident.  Despite this, the university police filed no charges against A.G. because although the rape kit came back positive, the police were not convinced that this was non-consensual intercourse.  Helfman then turned to the courts, and the Superior Court granted a motion for summary judgment in favor of the university.  Helfman appealed and the case went all the way up to the SJC.

The SJC’s reasoning and the duty of care

It is a common and well-settled principle that in most situations, there is no general duty of care.  However, there are certain situations and relationships where a duty of care is in effect.  For example, common carriers such as airlines and buses have a duty of care to their passengers, and doctors have a duty of care to their patients.  But what does a university owe to its students?

The Court recognizes that Massachusetts has a history of establishing a duty of care between students and their universities.  This is a special relationship that is grounded both on the “reasonable expectation, fostered in part by colleges themselves, that reasonable care will be exercised to protect resident students from foreseeable harm,” and the observation that universities “generally undertake voluntarily to provide their students with protection from the criminal acts of third parties.”  Mullins v. Pine Manor College, 389 Mass. 47, 54 (1983).

Although this is a well-established standard, the defendant in this case argued that this theory of liability does not apply when a student is voluntarily intoxicated.  The Court disagreed. It is unreasonable to assume that this heightened duty of care disappears as soon as a student has a few too many drinks.  A university is not in the position to police a student’s activities, and intoxication is not a reasonable basis for the university to abandon its duty to protect its students’ safety.

The Court’s holding and its future implications

The Court held that “a university has a special relationship with its students, and a corresponding duty to take reasonable measure to protect students from harms associated with alcohol-related emergencies.”  Helfman v. Ne. Univ., 485 Mass. 308, 312 (2020).  However, the Court made clear that this holding is very narrow and limited its holding to the following circumstance.

  1. When a university has actual knowledge of conditions that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that a student on campus is in imminent danger of serious physical harm due to alcohol intoxication, and so intoxicated that the student is incapable of seeking help for themselves, the university has a duty to take reasonable measure to protect that student from that harm.

Unfortunately for Helfman, the Court concluded that this principle does not apply to her case specifically.  The Court held that it was not reasonable to suspect that she was in danger and that two intoxicated students returning to a dorm is not usually a situation where a student is in imminent physical danger.  Although the Court is correct that two intoxicated students who return home together does not mean that rape or sexual assault is imminent, it is still important to look at some statistics regarding young women and rape on college campuses.  First of all, 54% of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age of 30, and of those people, 90% are women.  However, the most disturbing statistic is that women ages 18-24 who are college students are 3 times more likely than women in general to experience sexual violence.

Although Helfman lost her case, she did achieve a win in the long run.  Hopefully, this decision will allow students on campus to be confident that the university will be liable for their harms even though they are intoxicated.  But sadly, for many young women, this ruling may not be enough for them to hold their institution liable when it comes to sexual assault by another student.

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