A "Greek Week" Participant's Injury Expands Universities' Duty of Care

In any case of negligence, the first question that must be explored is whether the defendant owed a legal duty of care to the plaintiff. Unless a duty exists, the defendant's behavior and any injuries that result are legally irrelevant.

In many types of cases, the question of duty is an easy one to address. For example, it is well-accepted law that teachers owe a duty of care to children under their watch, whether in a classroom, playground or extracurricular-activity setting. In the K-12 context, parents entrust their children to the care of teachers, coaches and administrators and, using the rationale of in loco parentis ("in place of the parents"), courts have no difficulty, generally, in finding that a duty of care exists. (To find liability, of course, a breach of duty, causation and damages must also coexist.)

In the realm of higher education, however - where the students are adults - the question of duty is more complicated, and case law has led to confusing positions. Making sense of these cases is difficult, and often provides little guidance for the administrator who oversees recreational sports or intercollegiate athletic teams.

A recent case decided by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, Stevens v. West Virginia Institute of Technology [532 S.E.2d 639 (W. Va. 1999)], is indicative of the minority position relevant to the duty issues in higher education. In Stevens, the plaintiff was a sorority member who participated in various campus social events during "Greek Week," one of which was a volleyball match. The plaintiff and two of her sorority sisters entered the gymnasium's storage closet to obtain the equipment for the match and began to roll one of the volleyball standards out onto the gym floor. The base of the standard disconnected from the pole and hit the plaintiff in the back of the leg, causing a deep laceration that reached the bone. It is unclear from the evidence whether the attachment pin necessary to secure the standard's pole to the base fell out, or was missing, when the women began rolling the standard out of the closet. The plaintiff was transported to a local hospital and was given emergency treatment that proved to be substandard. (The plaintiff's medical malpractice claim based on treatment of her leg will not be addressed here.)

The action filed against West Virginia Institute of Technology alleged that the university was negligent in allowing students to use defective equipment and in its failure to supervise students. The circuit court ruled in favor of WVIT, but the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals reversed. While agreeing with the lower court's determination that the plaintiff did not provide enough evidence to show that any breach of duty occurred, the appeals court found that a duty existed both on the question of defective equipment and on the question of supervision.

The only evidence submitted by the plaintiff with regard to the defective equipment were affidavits by her sorority sisters present at the time of the injury. These affidavits stated that the base, which was not secured to the pole by a pin, separated from the pole when the base of the standard got caught on a metal strip on the floor. No other witnesses were listed by the plaintiff, nor was any attempt made by plaintiff's counsel to examine the standard to determine if it was defective.

Similarly, the plaintiff submitted no evidence that the duty of supervision was breached, other than her testimony that there was no supervision in the gymnasium at the time that she was injured. The appeals court found that this testimony alone was not sufficient for a reasonable jury to find a breach of duty regarding supervision.

Yet, the court held that a university has a duty of care to its students when it encourages them to participate in any sport. With regard to the defective equipment claim, the court noted that, in this jurisdiction, landowners owe any non-trespassing entrant a duty of reasonable care. In this case, the plaintiff was in the gymnasium lawfully, and therefore a duty of reasonable care was owed to her by the university.

Furthermore, the court found that the university has a duty of public service. The court's line of reasoning here was consistent with its prior holding in Kyriazis v. University of West Virginia [450 S.E.2d 649 (W. Va.1994)], in which the court declined to uphold a waiver for club sports, in part because to do so would violate public policy. The Kyriazis court used the rationale that since recreational activities are part of a university's educational mission, a university is charged with a duty of public service that translates into a duty of care to students whenever they engage in sport, whether competitive or recreational.

The Stevens case is significant because the court clearly found, despite the plaintiff's evidentiary deficiencies, that a duty to supervise students existed even in the informal setting of a recreational activity during "Greek Week." Although the Stevens case represents the current analysis of just one jurisdiction, it will be interesting to see whether other jurisdictions adopt this type of analysis.

As noted previously, the Stevens court is not in accord with the majority of duty cases in this type of recreational sport situation. Most courts, when faced with the same circumstances, would decline to find a duty of care, with the usual rationale being that the activity is one undertaken by adults who require no supervision. (A premises defect is an example of an area where a court would be more likely to find a duty of care, even in such an informal recreational setting.)

The more structured setting of intercollegiate athletics yields a similar range of legal opinion. For example, in Albano v. Colby College [822 F. Supp. 840 (D. Me. 1993)], a college tennis player was severely injured during a team trip to Puerto Rico. The student-athlete became inebriated and fell while wandering around at night at the resort where the team was staying. The court held that the coach had no duty to prevent this adult student from drinking, and that the mere ability to control does not give rise to a legal duty.

By contrast, in the well-known case of Kleinknecht v. Gettysburg College [989 F.2d 1360 (3rd Cir. 1993)], a varsity lacrosse player suffered a fatal cardiac arrest during practice. The Third Circuit held that the college had a duty of care to provide adequate medical services to its recruited student-athletes. In the more recent case of Howell v. Calvert [1 P.3d 310 (Kan.2000)], the Kansas Supreme Court also held that a duty of care existed between a university and its student-athletes. In Howell, two university basketball players were hit by a truck during a mandatory early-morning conditioning run. The route was designated by the coach and was run, in the dark, on a heavily traveled road.

These latter two cases are consistent with the legal principle that when a particular program is offered, the duty to run that program with reasonable care is assumed. Since universities control all aspects of intercollegiate athletics, it follows that the university has a duty to take reasonable care for the safety of its student-athletes.

If anything, duty-of-care issues in recreational and competitive activities in higher education are becoming murkier because of the blurring of traditional boundaries between intercollegiate sports, club sports, intramural sports and recreational activities. Many club sports now resemble varsity sports in terms of their operation, making the liability issues increasingly complex.

Since duty issues are questions of law for judges to decide and decisions regarding duty are intertwined with policy considerations, it is to be expected that duty will vary as the university's relationship with its students varies. As the relationships between universities and their student populations evolve, so will discussions of duty.