The Rhode Island School of Design was recently ordered to pay $2.5 million to a student who was raped while participating in a study abroad program.
The judgment raises an interesting legal question for students and schools:
Who’s liable when a student is injured while studying abroad?
Jane Doe v. Rhode Island School of Design
A woman, referred to as Jane Doe in court documents, attended a study abroad program in Ireland sponsored by the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). RISD provided housing for all of the students. The house that Jane was placed in was co-ed and contained 4 individual rooms. The house had a key to lock the door to the outside, but there were no workable locks on the bedroom doors.
On the first night of the program, the student staying in the bedroom next to Jane’s walked into Jane’s unlocked bedroom and raped her.
Jane filed a lawsuit against RISD alleging that RISD was negligent.
Generally speaking, a plaintiff must establish the following elements to prove negligence:
- The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care,
- The defendant breached the duty of care, and
- The breach caused the plaintiff’s injury.
The court decided that the relationship between RISD and the study abroad students gave rise to a duty on the part of RISD to exercise reasonable care to protect Jane (and the other students) from foreseeable harm.
The court further decided that RISD breached its duty when the school failed to provide housing that included locks on the bedroom doors. In support of this decision, the court pointed to the fact that a nearly identical incident occurred 3 years earlier to a different RISD student. In other words, the harm suffered by Jane was foreseeable.
Common types of study-abroad lawsuits filed against colleges and universities
The number of students who study abroad has increased steadily over the past few decades. However, lawsuits have become so frequent that some schools have contemplated whether it’s worth continuing to offer these programs.
An investigation conducted by United Educators, an insurance company that provides liability insurance and risk management services to colleges and universities, found that the most common types of negligence claims lodged against colleges and universities are as follows:
|Failure to follow the institution’s policy||The college had sound policies in place, but trip leaders or study abroad administrators did not follow or were unaware of the policy requirements.||A student reported inappropriate sexual advances by her host father. Upon further investigation, college administrators learned that the study abroad director had ignored similar accusations for years in violation of the college’s policy, which required severing ties with the host family upon notice of such accusations.|
|Negligent supervision of students||During some college-sponsored activities, it was alleged that a trip leader was inattentive or completely failed to supervise study abroad participants.||When a student in Spain fell ill, her professor left her unsupervised in a hospital and continued with the other students to the next city on their tour. There was no second trip leader. The student was left alone in a Spanish hospital without an interpreter while her condition worsened.|
|Inappropriate employee sexual misconduct||Sexual relationships between institution employees and students studying abroad, both consensual and non-consensual, can lead to legal claims.||A trip leader bought 2 students several rounds of drinks and invited them to his apartment for a sexual encounter. The university’s policies stated that sober consent was necessary for sexual relationships and prohibited sexual relationships between trip leaders and students. The 2 students sued and reached a settlement with the university.|
|Improper medical care||College health care providers that misdiagnose or mistreat medical conditions put students at risk and increase the likelihood of institutional liability.||A student’s arm began swelling on a trip to Nepal, and the institution’s doctor advised her not to see a local physician. Later, the student sued the institution after she was diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis.|
Common defenses raised by colleges and universities
Apart from disputing the facts of the case, there are 2 common defenses that universities and colleges commonly raise in negligence-based study abroad lawsuits:
- The student was negligent. Schools often argue that the student was at least partially at fault for their injuries. In Bloss v. University of Minnesota, a student was assaulted by a taxi driver while studying abroad in Mexico. The school argued that the student was partially responsible because she failed to follow the explicit oral and written warnings about safe ways to travel and instead hailed a taxi. In some states, students are prohibited from recovering ANY damages if they’re even partially at fault. In other states, the students' damages are simply reduced.
- The student signed a waiver. Schools often ask their students to sign a liability waiver before their trip. The validity of waivers depends on the state. What’s more, even in states that allow waivers, they’re frequently invalidated on the basis that they’re overbroad or vague. Nevertheless, a well-drafted waiver can serve as valuable evidence that a school made its students aware of certain risks.