Plaintiff Morgan Helfman brought a negligence action against Northeastern University when she was allegedly sexually assaulted by a classmate in 2013. She alleged that resident advisors knew she was heavily intoxicated and did nothing to protect her from harm.
To understand the decision, we must look to the facts of the specific case. The alleged assault occurred on October 31, 2013. Helfman, a freshman, was drinking in her dorm room and later attended a party where she drank more. She became intoxicated and was vomiting at the party. She later walked home with A.G.. During the walk, Helfman and A.G. kissed multiple times. The proctor at the front door let both students inside. They went to A.G.’s room where Helfman alleges that he initiated sex. Helfman later told her roommate that she would have stopped the encounter had she been sober. The university investigated the incident and did not find that A.G. committed a sexual assault. Helfman brought a negligence claim against Northeastern and several members of the administration. The court granted the school’s motion for summary judgment, after which Helfmam appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court.
While the court held that in this case, Northeastern had no duty to protect Helfman, it rejected Northeastern’s argument that institutions of higher education have no duty to protect students who voluntarily drink alcohol. This argument would effectively shield them from blame whenever a student is harmed while under the influence of alcohol. The court instead found that universities have a special relationship with their students, prompting a heightened level of care: to take “reasonable measures” to protect students who are in “imminent danger.” The court also grappled with issues of balancing a student’s autonomy as a legal adult and the recognition that college students are often not fully adults and may need some level of protection at times. Continue reading