MA Court Rules that Colleges Owe a Duty of Care to Intoxicated Students

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.

Justice Barbara A. Lenk wrote in the court’s decision, “[T]he ‘bystander’ era from which [the] ‘no duty’ decisions emerged … appears to be drawing to a close[.]” Universities must now take reasonable measures to protect students from alcohol related harm when the university is on notice that the student is in “imminent danger.” This duty did not apply in this case because the court found the school was not on notice because the assault was not reasonably foreseeable. Justice Lenk wrote: “Considering all of the information that Northeastern had at its disposal, it was not reasonably foreseeable that the plaintiff was in peril at the time of the alleged assault.” She continued to explain that the alleged perpetrator had no history of previous sexual assaults. The court held that “[b]ecause Northeastern was not on notice that it would be required to step in and protect the plaintiff, the existence of a special relationship alone did not impose an obligation on Northeastern to act.”

This is a landmark decision, finally putting into law what has long been thought: that schools cannot sit idly by as sexual assaults mount on campus, many of which are facilitated by alcohol. The decision, while it did not play out in Helfman’s favor in this case, leaves room for a jury to determine what is considered a foreseeable harm that indicates the school was on notice, and prompting this heightened duty of care.

A general culture of indifference toward sexual assault on college campuses has been noted by many in recent years. While some attorneys don’t predict any large-scale change on the part of universities, this decision provides a mechanism by which they can be punished if they fail to act under certain circumstances.

If you believe that your university didn’t provide the proper duty if care to you or a loved one, call our office and speak to one of our experienced attorneys for a free case consultation. We can be reached 24/7 at 617-492-3000 or 800-481-6199.

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