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Premises Liability and College Student Injuries

Casey Woodruff

Who is responsible when a college student suffers a severe or deadly fall accident? Over the last couple of years, news agencies have reported on serious premises liability accidents involving college kids, many of which have involved falls from heights. According to a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, a Northern Illinois University student suffered fatal injuries after falling from the 11th floor of his residence hall after removing his window screen. While the student’s death remains under investigations, it raises questions about responsibility for accidents like this one.

When a college student suffers fatal injuries after a fall from heights, is the university responsible? Should the student’s parents file a premises liability claim? And how might the contributory negligence of the student come into play?

Colleges as Businesses with a Duty of Care

According to a recent law journal article in the Review of Law and Social Justice, courts tend to treat colleges as ordinary businesses (at least to an extent), emphasizing that “colleges have a duty of due care in premises maintenance” among other duties. Indeed, “because colleges are ‘landowners,’ [many] courts have established a duty of care obliging them to keep their campuses reasonably safe for persons deemed ‘invitees.’”

In short, it is possible for students (or their survivors) to file a premises liability claim against a college if their injuries are the result of negligent property maintenance. Like other property owners, colleges and universities must maintain their premises in a manner that is reasonably safe and free of hazards. Indeed, “modern colleges owe persons on their campuses the positive duty of exercising reasonable care in providing reasonably safe premises for their use.” But what happens when a college student’s behavior contributes to his own injuries?

There is no hard and fast answer to this question. Generally speaking, contributory negligence can reduce the amount a plaintiff may recover in a premises liability claim. However, when it comes to injuries on college campuses, the article points out that “traditionally, courts have been reluctant to recognize a college’s duty of care to an injured student whose high-risk behavior contributed to his or her own harm.”  The article cites a study of student alcohol consumption, underlining that “college life has assumed over the years . . . the character of a no-liability social drinking community.”

Yet there is hope for injured plaintiffs who engaged in risky behavior and got hurt if they can show that the college played a role in facilitating that high-risk behavior. For example, some courts have recognized that colleges and universities play a role in cultures of alcohol abuse and fraternity hazing. But what if an injured student did not engage in especially high-risk behavior and still got hurt?

Falls from Heights and Premises Liability Claims

In general, if a college student suffers injuries in a fall from heights, the college may be held at least partially responsible through a premises liability lawsuit. The student’s chance of obtaining compensation, the article suggests, is better if the student’s own high-risk behavior did not play a role in the accident.

Looking at the recent case from Northern Illinois University, it is difficult to say whether high-risk behavior caused the college sophomore to fall to his death. Yet in such situations, it is important to consider filing a premises liability lawsuit. Colleges and universities owe a duty to students and other invitees or guests on their property to maintain the grounds in a reasonably safe manner. If you have questions about whether you have a legitimate claim, you should discuss your case with an experienced Aurora premises liability lawyer today. Contact Woodruff Johnson & Evans to learn more about how we can assist you.

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