PREMISES LIABILITY: Chatman v. S. Univ. at New Orleans

Can a university be held liable in a dorm-room fight involving two adult students?

Yes, according to the court in Chatman v. S. Univ. at New Orleans, 2015-1179 (La. App. 4 Cir. 7/6/16), — So.3d —, 2016 WL 3613265. The decision provides an interesting analysis of legal causation, the “scope of protection” element of a Louisiana negligence action.

The plaintiff and her roommate lived together for about one week before the incident but had been best friends for several years. The roommate allowed her 16-year-old cousin to stay at the apartment. Concerned that this may violate Southern University (New Orleans) campus rules, plaintiff attempted to discuss the issue with the resident “Community Assistant.” The “CA” was a student/employee who lived in the building and whose role included enforcement of school policies. However, the CA was not available. The CA was similarly unavailable to address the resident’s safety concern after the roommate’s boyfriend ran around the apartment, banging on doors and demanding entry.

On the first Thursday they lived together, plaintiff, her roommate, and the roommate’s cousin went to the store together to buy food for the apartment. Plaintiff went home for the weekend and returned only to find that her roommate, the cousin, and other guests had eaten most of the food she had purchased. Tensions escalated, and later, the roommate and her cousin entered plaintiff’s bedroom and attacked her. Plaintiff testified the roommate stomped on her head while wearing high-heel shoes. Plaintiff eventually lost her eye as a result of the incident. The roommate was convicted of second degree battery and imprisoned.

Under these facts, the jury allocated 70% fault to the roommate, 15% to the cousin, and 15% to the university. In affirming the trial court’s decision, the Fourth Circuit found that legal causation was established because the plaintiff’s injury, which resulted from an intentional, violent attack from a roommate, fell within the “scope of protection” the university owed its student.  While the court acknowledged that “a risk may be found not within the scope of a duty where the circumstances of that injury to the plaintiff could not reasonably be foreseen or anticipated,” the court found the plaintiff’s injuries were compensable against the school. Previously, in Veazey v. Elmwood Plantation Associates, Ltd., 93-2818 (La. 11/30/94), 650 So. 2d 712, an argument that the “scope of the duty” of a negligent actor included responsibility for intentional conduct was successfully used to disregard the fault of an intentional actor in a similar setting, resulting in the full allocation of fault to a negligent apartment complex owner. However, after Veazey, the law was amended to clarify that the fault of all actors, including intentional actors, must be considered.

In Chatman, the court found that the university was “unreasonably lax in the enforcement of its written policies” because it did not provide sufficient access to its CA’s and failed to prevent the roommate’s minor, non-student cousin from staying in the apartment. As such, it appears the court found this evidence sufficiently created an “ease of association” between plaintiff’s injury and the duty owed under the facts of this case. However, two judges dissented to this ruling on grounds that the jurors were not properly instructed to examine whether the incident was reasonably foreseeable or, stated differently, whether legal causation was properly established.