North Carolina Prank or Assault?

brick buildingIn a recent North Carolina injury case, the plaintiff sued a university for an assault committed by other students in his dorm. He lived at a residence hall at the university, and the other students pranked him by putting a cup of liquid over the door, such that it would spill when the door was opened. When the plaintiff opened the door, the liquid spilled onto him and the floor. He approached the students he thought were involved, and it turned into a physical fight.

During the physical fight, the plaintiff was seriously injured, sustaining multiple fractures. After the fight, the five students involved in fighting and the prank were suspended while awaiting a hearing before the Student Conduct Board. The plaintiff and his roommate were moved to another dorm, and eventually the plaintiff withdrew from the school and enrolled in a different college.

In 2014, the plaintiff sued the university and its trustee board, asking for damages for negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress, as well as punitive damages related to the university’s allegedly willful and wanton disregard for his rights and gross negligence. The university moved for summary judgment and asked the court to dismiss the case. The university’s summary judgment motion was granted, and the plaintiff appealed.

The plaintiff argued that the trial court had made a mistake in granting the motion for summary judgment, since he’d appropriately established negligence. The appellate court explained that the plaintiff was required to prove:  (1) he was owed a legal duty of care, (2) the duty was breached by the defendant, and (3) his injuries were legally caused by the breach of care. It explained that there was negligence only if the defendant that owed a duty of care failed to exercise it in the way that a reasonable person would have, given similar circumstances. The issue was whether the defendant should have foreseen the plaintiff’s harm was likely under that factual scenario.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that it was the university’s negligence that caused his injuries. He explained that a negligence claim can arise when there is a special relationship existing between the parties. The university-student relationship by itself doesn’t create a special relationship that causes a duty of care. A defendant is usually not liable for a third party’s criminal activity, since it’s usually considered unforeseeable and an intervening event that removes liability from the defendant.

However, a college can be liable for a criminal assault against a student by a third party, depending on the foreseeability of the criminal assault. In this case, 41% of the university police department’s campus calls involved the dorm where the plaintiff lived, and there were 11 events at the dorm that required security to respond.

Evidence of prior criminal activity was the most probative evidence on the issue of foreseeability. The appellate court concluded that in this case, the judge was right that the plaintiff’s evidence wasn’t enough to show a breach of duty to protect the plaintiff against other students physically attacking him. The 11 prior episodes involved only three assaults and therefore weren’t enough evidence of repeated crimes to show foreseeability. For this and other reasons, the lower court’s decision was affirmed.

If you suffered injuries due to the wrongful conduct or negligence of another party, the experienced North Carolina personal injury attorneys at Maurer Law may be able to help you recover compensation. Contact us at 919-229-8359 or via our online form.

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