Judge Awards $2.5 Million to Student Who Was Sexually Assaulted on Foreign-Study Program

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A graduate student at the Rhode Island Institute of Design (RISD) recently won a substantial judgment of $2.5 million for injuries that she suffered after being sexually assaulted on a RISD-sponsored travel program. Following a recent bench trial,[1] the court ruled that RISD was negligent in not providing safe and secure housing on the program.

Facts

Jane Doe was a graduate student at RISD. In 2016, she attended a RISD-sponsored three-week art program in Ireland. For the program, RISD secured several four-bedroom houses at a local hotel and resort to lodge participants. Each house had a lock on the exterior door, but the interior bedroom doors did not have working locks. No person from RISD, the hotel, or the partnering Irish institution inspected the houses or informed the students on how to access keys to lock their bedroom doors. RISD made the housing assignments to the houses.

On her first night in Ireland, Jane went to a nearby pub with other students from the program, including a male student who is referred to as “the perpetrator” in the lawsuit. The perpetrator was assigned to live in the same house as Jane. Jane and the perpetrator walked back to their house at the end of the evening, and the perpetrator requested a kiss from Jane. She told him he could kiss her on her cheek.  He asked for another; she said no and escorted him out of her bedroom. Jane closed her bedroom door, tried but could not lock it, and went to sleep. Jane woke in the middle of the night to find the perpetrator on top of her, smelling of vomit and alcohol. She no longer had on any clothing. He sexually assaulted her in her bed, using his mouth on her vagina and penetrating her with his penis.

The next day Jane disclosed to the on-site teaching/resident assistant what occurred. RISD promptly arranged for Jane to receive medical care and a forensic examination. Within days RISD dismissed the perpetrator from the Ireland program, and following an investigation and hearing, he was found responsible for the sexual assault. Jane has continued to experience the effects of the assault in the subsequent four years, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and effects on her academics, her artwork, and her personal relationships, among others.

Legal Analysis

The parties did not dispute whether RISD responded appropriately in the aftermath of the assault. That would typically be the substance of a Title IX claim, and instead, this lawsuit alleged that RISD was negligent in providing housing that did not allow students to lock their bedroom doors.

Like most states, Rhode Island follows the recognizable four-part framework to determine whether RISD acted with negligence:  1) RISD must owe Jane a “legally cognizable duty”; 2) RISD breached that duty; 3) there must be “proximate causation” between the breach and Jane’s injuries, and 4) Jane actually suffered actual loss or damages. [2]

First, the court found that RISD owed Jane a duty to exercise reasonable care in providing secure housing. Typically, courts are reluctant to burden universities with special duties to protect their students, generally recognizing that the era of in loco parentis has all but disappeared. But here, the court analyzed the relationship between Jane and RISD and held that a “special relationship” existed such that it created a duty for RISD to exercise reasonable care to ensure students’ safety while on the program.[3]

RISD organized an international program in a foreign country and required students to live in the housing it arranged. Therefore, Jane was forced to rely on RISD for her housing and had no ability to ensure a safer accommodation. The very nature of this international trip altered the typical relationship between a university and an adult student, giving rise to a duty that RISD exercise reasonable care in providing secure housing. Furthermore, RISD could foresee the risk here, having had a stunningly similar incident occur three years earlier on a program in Italy. There, a student was sexually assaulted in RISD-provided housing with bedrooms that did not have workable locks. This analogous earlier incident “increases the duty RISD owed its students” in the eyes of the court, though no university has any basis to be ignorant of such risks. If you have locks on residence hall doors here in the US, you need to ensure there are equivalent protections for any facilities in which you house students off-campus.

Second, the court readily found that RISD breached its duty here. Ample testimony from RISD officials confirmed that no institutional officials did any due diligence to ensure that students were able to lock their bedroom doors. The plaintiff’s expert witness, a security consultant, further testified that RISD failed to meet the standard of care for the provision of safe housing. Although persuaded by the plaintiff’s expert, the court held that “the breach of duty by RISD was obvious to anyone.”

Third, the court easily concluded that RISD’s breach caused Jane’s injuries. Had she been able to lock her door, the perpetrator would not have gained access to her room. Fourth, ample evidence in the record documented Jane’s injuries and losses. The court awarded Jane $2.5 million as compensation for her pain and suffering. Jane was also awarded compensation for her litigation costs and attorneys’ fees. As a judgment and not a settlement, these numbers likely set a new valuation for premises-related sexual assault liability for colleges.

Conclusion and Takeaways

  • Remember that Title IX is not the only legal risk facing institutions with respect to sexual violence. While Title IX may not apply outside the United States, negligence standards can be applied to incidents of sexual assault and misconduct at home and abroad when the risks are foreseeable and give rise to some duty on the institution’s part to prevent the harm.
  • In certain, limited circumstances, courts are increasingly finding that universities have a “special relationship” with students that triggers duties to warn or reduce the risk of potential injury.
  • When your institution manages and controls all aspects of a program, be sure to think through common-sense safety planning. Due diligence matters; take steps to mitigate risks and document your efforts to do so. Don’t assume that by renting or leasing third-party controlled premises abroad, even hotels, that those proprietors, landlords, or schools will take the same kinds of precautions that are common here in the US. Your goal should be to offer reasonably equivalent protections abroad to those you provide to students on campus. Risk management should include a full inspection of housing and other facilities, including by the on-site staff or security professionals commissioned to conduct a site audit (TNG’s experts go where ever you need us!).
  • The earlier incident certainly affected the court’s view of RISD’s negligence here. “Continuous improvement” may seem like a management buzzword, but it matters. Be sure your institution and leaders are committed to learning from past incidents to improve safety measures and prevent recurrence. What are your institutional mechanisms designed to learn from past complaints and litigation as time passes, personnel turnover, and institutional memory becomes more attenuated? The most proactive campuses have institutionalized processes for ensuring that new employees have access to opportunities to learn the lessons of the past so that they are not condemned to repeat them.

[1] A “bench trial” is a trial held without a jury, in which the judge is responsible for rendering a verdict.

[2] In an earlier decision, the court decided to apply Rhode Island law, rather than Irish law, because Rhode Island law has the closest nexus to the event and the parties. Doe v. Rhode Island Sch. of Design, 432 F.Supp.3d 35, 40 (D.R.I. 2019).

[3] The court determined that a “special relationship” existed in a December 2019 court ruling. Id. at 43.

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