(Reuters) - A former student who was stabbed by a classmate can sue the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) for failing to protect her from the assailant who had been treated for mental illness and barred from campus housing because of a prior physical altercation, California’s top court ruled on Thursday.
“Considering the unique features of the collegiate environment, we hold that universities have a special relationship with their students and a duty to protect them from foreseeable violence during curricular activities,” the California Supreme Court said, allowing Katherine Rosen to proceed with her lawsuit.
The decision overturned dismissal of Rosen’s case by an appeals court in 2015, which said colleges “are not liable for the criminal wrongdoing of mentally-ill third parties, regardless of whether such conduct might be in some sense foreseeable.” The case will now return to a lower court for further deliberations.
Rosen was doing classwork in a chemistry laboratory in 2009 when fellow student Damon Thompson stabbed her in the neck and chest with a kitchen knife.
Prosecutors charged Thompson with attempted murder, and in 2010 a judge found him not guilty by reason of insanity. That year, Rosen sued UCLA, alleging the attack was foreseeable and the university failed to take reasonable measures to protect her or warn her.
UCLA employees had been closely monitoring Thompson after he reported hearing voices and having paranoid thoughts, and a campus psychologist diagnosed Thompson with schizophrenia, according to Thursday’s ruling.
The university had also expelled him from campus housing after he pushed another student.
The ruling noted another warning sign: In the days before the attack, a teaching assistant was skeptical when Thompson told him that several students, including Rosen, had called him stupid.
Rosen’s lawyer, Alan Charles Dell’Ario, said she never called Thompson stupid.
The ruling only applies in California but is likely to influence judges in other U.S. states. Many U.S. courts have ruled that high schools have a duty to protect students from foreseeable violence, but it has been less certain if the same obligation exists for universities, said Benjamin Zipursky, a professor at Fordham Law School.
“The California Supreme Court is often regarded as the leading state high court on negligence law,” Zipursky said. “So I think it will have a significant impact on what other courts say on this issue.”
Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by David Gregorio