Daily Development for Thursday, August 18, 2005
by: Patrick A. Randolph, Jr.
Elmer F. Pierson Professor of Law
UMKC School of Law
Of Counsel: Blackwell Sanders Peper Martin
Kansas City, Missouri

LANDLORD/TENANT; LANDLORD’S  LIABILITY FOR THIRD PARTY CRIMINAL ATTACKS; COLLEGE DORMITORIES: The relationship between a college and a dormitory resident is one of landlord tenant, and the tenant does not occupy the status of “business invitee,” but in either case the college owes no duty to warn against or prevent an assault by a randomly assigned roommate, even when that roommate has been suspended from the campus for a year due to a prior violent incident.

Rhaney v. University of Maryland, Eastern Shores, --- A.2d ----, 2005 WL 1936348 (Md.)

Clark, a student at UMES, was involved in a fight one evening in March during his first year on campus.  The next day Clark was involved in another violent confrontation in a University dining hall - an event that he described in a later hearing as a continuation of the event the night before.  The university suspended Clark and required that he take “professional counseling relating to conflict resolution.”  Later, Clark participated in a “Save Our Streets” program in Washington D.C. and the University accepted that experience as satisfying the counseling requirement.  Nevertheless, the University continued his suspension for a full year.

A year later, Clark was readmitted to the University and was randomly assigned as a roommate for Rhaney.  Rhaney knew nothing of Clark’s prior suspension or the reason for it  at the time that they were assigned to be roommates, but learned of them some weeks later.  About two months after moving in, Clark was moving out of the dormitory room.  In the course of the move, while Clark was gone from the room, Rhaney and a friend moved Clark’s fish tank and the tank showed a crack and began to leak.  Clark returned, and blamed Rhaney, and in the course of a verbal argument Clark (in the words of the court) “sucker punched” Rhaney in the jaw, breaking it and requiring extensive medical treatment. 

Rhaney sued the university for failure to warn him of the special dangers that Clark presented or to take other precautions to protect him from that danger.  At a jury trial, the jury found for Rhaney and awarded damages.

On appeal: Held: Reversed.  Notwithstanding the jury verdict, as a matter of law the attack by Clark was unforseeable, and therefore the University, as a landlord, owed no duty of care to Rhaney.  Although the court ruled that in fact Rhaney was a tenant, and not a business invitee, the court stated even if Rhaney had been a business invitee, it satisfied its duty of care to Rhaney because, again, Clark’s actions were unforseeable and the University’s decision to assign Clark as Rhaney’s roommate was consistent with the duty of care it owed to business invitees.

The court analyzed a number of prior Maryland decisions, many of which had imposed liability on landlords for third party criminal attacks, and distinguished those cases because the circumstances in those cases involved a much higher degree of foreseeability of criminal attack.  In several cases, for instance, there had been prior criminal attacks in the area and (presumably) on the premises through break-ins, and consequently the landlord was held to a reasonable duty to maintain outside lighting in good condition to protect the tenants from similar attacks. 

The court noted that the “dangerous conditions” that the landlord had a duty to address in those cases were physical conditions.  It concluded that Clark was not a “dangerous condition”in and of himself.  Further, even if Clark was dangerous in some circumstances, the court noted, the prior incidents involved activity in large student groups in public areas, and were quite different from the altercation in the dormitory room. 

The court further held that there was no “special relationship” between a college and a dormitory resident (although it seemed to be of the view that there might be such a “special relationship” between college and student with respect to other aspects of the student’s activities on campus.   It further analyzed cases from other jurisdictions that have split on the question of whether a dormitory resident is a “business invitee” of a college.  It sided with the cases holding that the relationship is simply one of landlord tenant, and not that of business invitee, stressing he existence of a formal occupancy agreement between the University and Rhaney. 

Comment 1: Increasingly, court in premises liability cases appear to take the view that the question of foreseeability on the issue of duty is a question of law, not fact.  As here, the courts frequently are willing to set aside a jury determination that certain dangers are foreseeable.  It is unclear why forseseeability in these instances is all that different from that which might be analyzed in whether a duty was satisfied or whether proximate cause exists, but the courts seem interested in having a stronger  hand on the control valve of jury analysis on the question of duty.

Comment 2: Having said that, the Editor concludes that the only real explanation for the court’s ruling in this case was its desire to insulate generally a college from responsibility for dormitory fights.    Where a student’s activities are serious enough to warrant a requirement for counseling and a one year suspension, that student is a known danger.  The court’s argument  that the danger was manifest only in public settings, and that there was no indication of danger in the close confines of a dormitory room, strike the editor as patently absurd.   Putting two strangers into a close living situation can frequently result in confrontation, and certainly the University was aware of that.   In the editor’s view, to permit a student who has demonstrated a propensity for violence to reside with an unknowing and unconsenting roommate seems equally absurd.   It was a simple thing to require Clark to reside only with persons familiar with his history who consented to the risk.  !

 Keep i
n mind that, although there was only one disciplinary action, there were in fact two physical altercations.  Other students were disciplined, but most of them not as severely as Clark.  In short, the court’s opinion is protectionist in the extreme and appears out of kilter with other premises liability decisions.  The editor doesn’t necessarily agree with the trend favoring liability in these cases, but nevertheless believes that analysis ought to be consistent, or else even greater costs will be generated by cases going to trial that should be settled. 

Readers are encouraged to respond to or criticize this posting.

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