Thursday, October 8, 2015
C.A. Throws Out Suit Against UCLA by Student Stabbed in Lab
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday ordered dismissal of a lawsuit charging the University of California with liability for the stabbing of a UCLA student by a mentally disturbed classmate.
Div. Seven, in a 2-1 decision, said that a public university generally has no obligation to protect students from the criminal conduct of fellow enrollees, and that the “negligent undertaking” doctrine does not apply. Katherine Rosen contended that the school undertook a duty to protect her by adopting anti-violence protocols, but the court said UC did not thereby incur liability because its alleged undertaking did not increase the risk of harm beyond that which existed previously.
Rosen was stabbed during a chemistry lab in 2009 by Damon Thompson. Thompson was charged with attempted murder, but found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to Patton State Hospital.
The victim filed her lawsuit in 2010, alleging that Thompson had demonstrated paranoid, erratic and dangerous behavior for months before the attack, even threatening professors on several occasions.
Named as defendants, in addition to Thompson and the university, were four UCLA employees—a chemistry professor, two deans, and a psychologist who had several sessions with Thompson through the university’s counseling program—all of whom allegedly were aware of Thompson’s mental problems but breached a duty to take action that would have prevented the attack on Rosen.
Summary Judgment Denied
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gerald Rosenberg denied summary judgment, saying the school had a duty to warn the plaintiff and/or take reasonable steps to protect her from Thompson. The duty, he ruled, was based on the “special relationship” between student and school, Rosen’s status as a business invitee, and the university’s possible assumption of a duty to protect the plaintiff when it agreed to oversee Thompson’s psychological treatment in order to “accommodate his disability.”
The Court of Appeal, however, rejected the trial judge’s reasoning and granted a writ of mandate.
Justice Laurie Zelon, writing for the court, said the university had no legal duty to protect Rosen from third-party criminal conduct. Case law regarding the duty of elementary and secondary school officials to protect their students cannot be applied to colleges and universities, the justice said, because college students attend voluntarily and go about their daily lives without close supervision by the school.
Prior cases dealing with colleges and universities—including Tanja H. v. Regents of the University of California (1991) 228 Cal.App.3d 434, dealing with a sexual assault at a student party where alcohol was served—she noted, have rejected the “special relationship” argument in the context of suits regarding assaults by fellow students.
“As with the sexual assault that occurred in Tanja H….the conduct at issue here―a violent crime perpetrated by an individual suffering from mental illness―is a societal problem not limited to the college setting,” the justice wrote. “While colleges and universities may properly adopt policies and provide student services that reduce the likelihood such incidents will occur on their campuses, they are not liable for the criminal wrongdoing of mentally-ill third parties, regardless of whether such conduct might be in some sense foreseeable.”
Not ‘Business Invitee’
Zelon went on to reject the “business invitee” argument, saying a public entity can only be sued on that basis when an injury is related to a physical condition on its property. She cited Zelig v. County of Los Angeles (2002) 27 Cal.4th 1112, holding that the county had no duty to prevent a shooting at the Mosk Courthouse by conducting weapons screening.
The justice also rejected the claim that the defendant psychologist, Nicole Green, had a duty to warn under Civil Code §43.92, which provides that a psychotherapist has no duty to protect a third party from violent behavior by a patient “except where the patient has communicated to the psychotherapist a serious threat of physical violence against a reasonably identifiable victim or victims.”
The evidence, Zelon explained, shows that Thompson, who claimed that he was constantly being harassed by fellow students, denied any intent to hurt anyone, and that he never mentioned Rosen.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary Strobel, sitting on assignment, joined in the opinion.
Presiding Justice Dennis Perluss said the majority was correct in rejecting the claim against Green, but argued in dissent that Rosen should be allowed to continue with her suit against the university and the other employees.
He cited the university’s materials, addressed to prospective students and their families, promoting the school as having “no greater priority…than the safety and security of students” and others, and specifically hailing the UCLA campus as “one of the most secure…in the country.”
“Are these sentiments simply aspirational or is the relationship between UCLA—or any other college or university—and its students sufficiently ‘special’ that the school and its personnel have an affirmative duty to adopt reasonable procedures to protect their students from foreseeable injury at the hands of third parties acting negligently or intentionally and to implement those measures with reasonable care? … I would find such a special relationship exists between a college and its enrolled students, at least when the student is in a classroom under the direct supervision of an instructor, and the school has a duty to take reasonable steps to keep its classrooms safe from foreseeable threats of violence.”
Attorneys on appeal were Alan Charles Dell’Ario, Brian Panish and Deborah S. Chang of Panish, Shea & Boyle for the plaintiff, and Kenneth A. Maranga, Paul A. Elkhort, Morgan A. Metzger and Dennis Newitt of Maranga Morgenstern, Timothy T. Coates and Feris M. Greenberger of Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland, Charles F. Robinson, Karen J. Petrulakis and Normal J. Hamill of the UC Office of the General Counsel, and Kevin S. Reed of UCLA for the defendants.
The case is Adoption of T.K., G050676.
Copyright 2015, Metropolitan News Company