Binge drinking, sorority initiations and hazing have become synonymous with college life, and several of the nation’s leading publications publish annual lists of the nation’s most notorious party schools. When students are injured, or injure others, after consuming alcohol, a premises liability lawyer sometimes have filed lawsuits against the educational institution where the drinking took place. Plaintiffs bringing this type of litigation have faced many challenges over the years, and the way that courts weigh factors such as negligence, contributory negligence and foreseeability continue to evolve.
If a claim based on the tort of negligence is to be successful, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant owed them a duty of care and failed in this duty. They must also be able to demonstrate that they suffered injury, loss or damage as a result. Lawsuits brought against colleges and universities involving students who have been drinking often hinge on how courts interpret this duty of care.
Prior to the 1970s, courts were generally reluctant to hold colleges responsible, under premises liability, for the behavior of their students. Institutions of higher education were seen by judges as having a parental role, which provided them with some degree of immunity from litigation and premises liability laws. Colleges often defended themselves in these lawsuits by mounting an affirmative defense based on the fact that providing alcohol to minors is illegal. Most states prohibited drinking by those under the age of 21 even before the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed in 1984. This type of defense relies on the premise that willfully criminal behavior is inherently unforeseeable.
Contributory negligence is a popular defense strategy in student drinking cases because consuming excessive amounts of alcohol will likely be viewed by the court as reckless behavior. The intoxicating effects of beer, wine and liquor are well known, and defense attorneys may also cite the doctrine of volenti non fit injuria, which basically asserts that individuals have no right to damages if they are injured while voluntarily participating in activities that they know to be dangerous.
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As drinking and drug use on campuses around the county became more widespread during the late 1960s and early 1970s, courts became more likely to hold the view that schools were expected to protect their students against the foreseeable behavior of others even when it was criminal in nature. However, colleges were still rarely held responsible for alcohol-related injuries unless they had somehow facilitated the drinking.
In a 1986 case, the University of Utah successfully argued that they were not responsible for the injuries suffered by a student on a field trip who had been drinking even though a faculty member had been sent on the trip to act as a chaperone. Utah’s Supreme Court ruled that the university was not responsible for the reckless behavior of an adult student, and the judges were not swayed by arguments that the chaperone had witnessed the plaintiff drinking on a prior occasion.
Courts were also unwilling to rule that colleges had a custodial role in cases involving students who participated in drag races or fraternity activities after consuming large amounts of alcohol. In a notable case, a college was not held responsible for injuries suffered by students even though it had sponsored the drinking party where the injuries occurred.
While courts in some states are still hesitant to abandon the traditional bystander view of colleges and universities, others have begun to hold schools responsible in certain situations. Foreseeability is often at the center of these judicial decisions, and courts have waived away claims of contributory negligence when inebriated students were injured due to an unsafe condition that the school was aware of but failed to address. Colleges may also be held liable in personal injury cases when they fail to curb activities, such as hazing rituals that they know will involve heavy drinking.
In response to a more unpredictable legal climate, many institutions of higher education began to take their drinking policies more seriously. Students today often face disciplinary action or even expulsion for frequent violations of these policies, and colleges may cite their strict enforcement as evidence that they take the issue of student drinking seriously and are doing everything they can to curtail it.
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