As attorneys in a practice dedicated to representing students, it’s quite normal for parents to contact us for legal assistance after their student is injured at college. We understand how scary it is for parents and, unquestionably, for the harmed or injured student to deal with a physical injury or life threatening emergency. While we lecture on topics that promote campus safety and wellness, such as responsible alcohol use, bystander liability and how to prevent sexual assault, we know that students still get injured.
Colleges work hard at campus safety and security. Yet, some colleges are the size of small towns and a lot can be going on at any given moment. Most of the time, injuries result from accidents that could not be prevented. However, some injuries are entirely avoidable. While schools typically work hard to promote campus safety, accidents still happen. Students are injured in places like dorms and dining halls, or while participating in events organized by student organizations. Let’s face it, though hazing and alcohol-related injuries shouldn’t occur, they do. Sometimes students even become victims of crimes like rape and assault.
Injury Claims Against Private and Public Universities
All this to say, students can become injured at college. However, whether a college can be sued for simple negligence is a complicated question depending upon a number of factors. For many private colleges, liability will be no different than any other landlord or business, which means that colleges are not responsible for every accident that occurs on campus. Liability is even more complicated when it comes to public universities. Public colleges enjoy special protection, called sovereign immunity, and those institutions are only liable based on a number of exceptions that vary from state to state statutes since state institutions are protected from being sued. And, when it comes to liability for harassment, sexual assault or hazing injuries, many laws and statutes require a higher degree of culpability than just negligence. In those cases, institutions are only responsible if it acts with deliberate indifference to the welfare of a student. A lawyer is truly needed in this area to assess whether there is any liability.
Suing a College for Compensatory and Punitive Damages
An attorney will also be needed to assess what damages can be obtained for an injury. What types of compensatory damages that can be recovered also depends on various state and federal laws. Compensatory damages include medical expenses and lost wages. Many parents ask us about whether there can be a recovery of pain and suffering and emotional distress damages. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t so clear cut – sometimes it’s a “yes” and sometimes it’s a “no”. Many federal and state statutes exclude pain and suffering and emotional distress damages. On the other hand, some federal statutes allow for the recovery for punitive damages and attorney’s fees… Again, an experienced lawyer must evaluate what can and cannot be recoverable from a given incident.
What Should You Do When Injured on Campus?
In our practice, our main goal is to provide broad range tips on what to do if a student gets hurt on campus. Here are some essential pointers:
Students should document the incident, which may include steps like calling campus security or the police, immediately seeking medical treatment, taking photographs of an injury, and memorializing who was present when the incident occurred.
Many student injuries are covered under homeowner’s insurance, even if a student is away at college. Ask about which insurance policies may cover an incident. For example, the NCAA also has medical and disability insurance for athletes.
Follow Doctor’s Orders
Students must stay compliant with medical advice. Whether it’s going to physical therapy, taking medication or attending therapy, it’s important to listen to your medical providers. If it’s difficult to find a therapist in a student’s college town, consider teletherapy.
If necessary, consider taking a leave of absence.
We tell students all of the time that their health and welfare is always number 1. It’s better to take some time off from school than let health slide or have grades tank. Instead, think about going home, getting strong and returning with an A game on board. Don’t worry about getting too far behind. It’s not unusual, especially since the pandemic, for students to take a little longer to graduate. It’s a marathon and not a sprint.
If you’ve been injured on a college campus and need assistance with legal proceedings, please contact Susan Stone (SCS@kjk.com; 216.736.7220) or Kristina Supler (KWS@kjk.com; 216.736.7217).