Friday, May 21, 2010

In loco parentis comes to the Second Circuit

Remember college administrators telling you that they were not "in loco parentis"? That's Latin for "we are not your parents." In loco parentis found its way to the Second Circuit in a tragic case involving young students who died from an accident on a lake at Paul Smith College in upstate New York.

The case is Guest v. Hansen, decided on April 20. While visiting the college, Kristine Guest and a friend were snow-mobiling on a lake situated on campus but owned by the state. They crashed into a peninsula, a piece of land owned by the campus, causing their deaths. College officials knew that students partied at this lake all the time and that these get-togethers included a lot of drinking and other ill-advised activity, like snowmobiling along the frozen lake. State police told campus officials to call them if they saw any dangerous or illegal activity, but a college official ignored that directive, in part, because she did not want to "cause a riot."

So are college officials liable for these deaths? Had they called the police, the wild parties might have stopped that night and no one would have died on the lake. But here is what we learn in law school: the law does not always require the fairest outcome. The Court of Appeals (Parker, Raggi and Calabresi) rules in favor of the college. The college owed the students no duty. Citing decisions from the New York Court of Appeals, the Second Circuit says:

Under New York law, colleges have no legal duty to shield students or their guests from the harmful off-campus activity of other students. They do not act in loco parentis. Similarly, a defendant has no duty to control the conduct of third persons so as to prevent them from harming others, even where as a practical matter defendant can exercise such control. Nor does a defendant assume such a duty by observing, but failing to stop dangerous activity.

These principles cut against the family. Maybe the college could have saved the victims, but it had no legal duty to do so. Interesting footnote at the end of the decision: Judge Calabresi, who wrote the majority opinion (including a section that allows the victim's non-lawyer father to handle the case pro se), actually does not agree with the liability analysis and would certify the case to the New York Court of Appeals to clarify the legal rules governing this case.

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