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Drug and Alcohol Deaths on College Campuses

March 14, 2019

Can I Sue If My Child Dies from an Overdose in a Dorm?

Where students of a university live in a campus dormitory in exchange for room and board payments, they are business invitees with a special relationship to the university. In this setting, the school has a duty to respond quickly and appropriately when a student requires medical assistance. Such emergencies can be expected in universities housing thousands of students every year, and a rapid and effective response often can make a life-saving difference.

Feldman Shepherd personal Injury attorneys Mark W. Tanner and Peter M. Newman recently represented the family of a student whose death would not have occurred had the university and its security contractor responded appropriately when a medical emergency was reported in a campus dormitory. Mr. Tanner and Mr. Newman established that medical emergencies in college dorms are foreseeable and that the defendants owed a duty to render assistance. The two attorneys overcame multiple attempts by the school and its security contractor to have the case thrown out on legal grounds, and ultimately secured a seven-figure settlement for the clients.

Safety Measures on College Campuses for Overdose Emergencies

The first question to ask in these cases is whether the college or university could have foreseen “the general likelihood of some broadly definable class of events” —  in this case, medical emergencies in its dormitories. Huddleston v. Infertility Ctr. of Am., Inc., 700 A.2d 453, 460 (Pa. Super. 1997); Kleinknecht v. Gettysburg College, 989 F.2d 1360 (3d Cir. 1993). The answer to this question is unequivocally: “Yes, medical emergencies in dormitories are foreseeable.” This answer has become increasingly obvious given the well-publicized and catastrophic events involving alcohol and drugs on our college campuses. Medical emergencies are expected, and every school must develop a multi-faceted system of security, safety and support in the dormitories to control the manner in which emergency services are provided to students. This system typically includes:

  • A safety and security force on campus (“campus police”)
  • Hired security contractors to provide supplemental safety and security services, including guards at the entrances to dormitories
  • Resident Advisors and Coordinators who live in the dorms and are trained to respond to medical emergencies
  • Published policies and procedures to be followed by students and staff in the event of an emergency.

The creation of this safety net clearly constitutes an undertaking to render services to the students, subjecting the school to liability for physical harm resulting from its failure to exercise reasonable care in the performance of this undertaking. There are a number of legal bases for this duty, including the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 323, Negligent Performance of Undertaking to Render Services, which Pennsylvania appellate courts have adopted as the law in Pennsylvania. Gradel v. Inouye, 491 Pa. 534, 421 A.2d 674 (1980); DeJesus v. Liberty Mutual Ins. Co., 423 Pa. 198, 223 A.2d 849 (1966); Filter v. McCabe, 733 A.2d 1274 (Pa.Super.1999).

College Campus Drug and Alcohol Overdose: Critical Factors that Save Lives

The second question is whether the university and its security contractor responded quickly and appropriately when a medical emergency was reported. In-depth investigation by Mr. Tanner and Mr. Newman focused on a number of critical factors:

  • Were the Resident Advisors and Coordinators properly trained and were they available to respond to the emergency on the night in question? (they were not)
  • Was the hired security contractor properly qualified and trained to identify and respond to a medical emergency? (he was not)
  • Did campus police have a reasonable and appropriate system in place to call 911 when emergency medical assistance was required? (they did not).

Delayed Response to an Overdose: Time Is Critical in Dorm Emergencies

The third question is whether a timely and appropriate response to the student’s medical emergency would have saved the student’s life (or minimized his injuries). Mr. Tanner and Mr. Newman worked with preeminent medical experts to establish that the delay caused by the university and its security contractor deprived the student of the medical care he urgently required to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

Tragedies in school dormitories are foreseeable and preventable when the university is prepared to respond quickly and appropriately. Increased accountability on the part of the universities will ultimately provide safer environments for these students


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