Arizona University did not owe student a duty of care during a study abroad program when the students organized an “off campus” trip, which resulted in a student’s death

Two different issues determine most outcomes in lawsuits against college & universities, whether the class was for credit or not and whether the incident occurred off campus or on campus.

Boisson v. Arizona Board Of Regents, et. al., 236 Ariz. 619; 343 P.3d 931; 2015 Ariz. App. LEXIS 36; 708 Ariz. Adv. Rep. 7

State: Arizona, Court of Appeals of Arizona, Division One

Plaintiff: Elizabeth Boisson

Defendant: Arizona Board Of Regents, a public entity; State of Arizona, a public entity; Nanjing American University, L.L.C., an Arizona corporation doing business as, or under the trade name of Yangtze International Study Abroad

Plaintiff Claims: negligence

Defendant Defenses: no duty owed

Holding: for the defendant

Year: 2015

The deceased signed up for an international study abroad trip in China through the defendant university. While in China, the deceased and several other students organized a trip to Everest base camp. While at Everest base camp the deceased suffered altitude sickness and died.

From China, you can drive to the North Side base camp of Everest, which is at 19,000 feet.

During a student-organized trip, 14 study abroad students — including Morgan — flew to Lhasa, Tibet. The students then drove to the Mount Everest base camp a few days later. While at base camp, which is approximately 18,000 feet above sea level, Morgan developed and then died of altitude sickness.

The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims based on the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. This appeal followed.

Analysis: making sense of the law based on these facts.

The court first looked at the requirements to prove negligence in Arizona.

Although described in various ways, a plaintiff alleging a claim for negligence under Arizona common law has the burden to show: (1) duty; (2) breach of that duty; (3) cause-in-fact; (4) legal (or proximate) causation and (5) resulting damages.

Arizona uses a five-step test for negligence when most other states use a four-point test. The difference is Arizona expands the definition of proximate causation requiring an actual cause and a proximate cause to prove negligence.

Of the five steps, the first, whether or not there was a duty, is a decision that is made by the court.

The existence of a duty of care is a distinct issue from whether the standard of care has been met in a particular case. As a legal matter, the issue of duty involves generalizations about categories of cases. Duty is defined as an “obligation, recognized by law, which requires the defendant to conform to a particular standard of conduct in order to protect others against unreasonable risks of harm.” . . . .

Whether the defendant owes the plaintiff a duty of care is a threshold issue; absent some duty, an action for negligence cannot be maintained. Thus, a conclusion that no duty exists is equivalent to a rule that, for certain categories of cases, defendants may not be held accountable for damages they carelessly cause, no matter how unreasonable their conduct.

Foreseeability is not an issue under Arizona’s law. Whether or not the defendant could foresee the injury to the plaintiff does not come into play when determining if a duty existed.

The court then looked at the duties owed by a college in Arizona to a student. Most duties arise when the relationships between the school and the student are custodial. Arizona does owe students a duty of reasonable care for on campus activities.

However, the duties owed for off-campus  activities by a university to a student are different.

Therefore, in the student-school relationship, the duty of care is bounded by geography and time, encompassing risks such as those that occur while the student is at school or otherwise under the school’s control.

This analysis has seven steps to determine the duty owed, if any, by an Arizona college.

…Arizona cases have identified the following factors in determining whether an off-campus activity is deemed a school activity: (1) the purpose of the activity, (2) whether the activity was part of the course curriculum, (3) whether the school had supervisory authority and responsibility during the activity, and (4) whether the risk students were exposed to during the activity was independent of school involvement. Courts elsewhere also have looked at whether (5) the activity was voluntary or was a required school activity; (6) whether a school employee was present at or participated in the activity or was expected to do so and (7) whether the activity involved a dangerous project initiated at school but built off campus.

Here the trip was conceived and organized by the students. The students dealt with a Chinese tour company to make the arrangements. Not all the students in the study abroad program undertook the trip. The college offered no academic credit for the trip, and the trip was not in the curriculum of the program.

Defendants had no supervisory authority over, or responsibility for, the trip, and no faculty or staff went on the trip. The risk of altitude sickness was present independent of any involvement by Defendants and the trip did not involve a potentially dangerous project initiated at school but built off campus. Accordingly, applying these factors, the Tibet trip was not an off-campus school activity for which Defendants owed Morgan a duty under Arizona law.

The plaintiff hired an expert witness who stated that the university absolutely had a duty to the plaintiff. However, the court ignored the expert finding the determination of a duty was solely within the province of the court, and the expert witness’s opinion did not matter.

The trial court’s determination was upheld because the appellate court found that the school owed no duty to the deceased.

So Now What?

One important thing that parents seem to forget when their sons and daughters leave for college is not only are they leaving home, but they are also leaving any real supervision, custody or control. Colleges and universities are not baby sitters or parents and parents probably should be reminded of that fact.

Here, the effects were disastrous; however, the issues were clear. A group of students left campus to do something. Where campus is, did not matter and where the students went did not matter. Whether or not the effects of altitude on a student at 19, 000 did also not matter because the college did not arrange, run, manage or control the students.

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