Across the nation, students are going back to school for the 2020-2021 school year. However, going “back to school” might not mean what it normally would for students because of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. For some colleges, students will only be returning to a virtual classroom, and will not be physically on campus for the Fall semester.
For other colleges, students will be returning to their school’s physical campus. In the unpredictable times of COVID-19, it remains to be seen if these schools will be able to successfully “reopen” without an outbreak of the virus.
Colleges and universities are uniquely vulnerable to an outbreak for a few reasons:
In the unfortunate case where a student does actually contract the virus, the student might be left thinking, “How did this happen when I took every precaution I could take?”
If the student believes that they have contracted the virus due to the fault of their college, the student’s natural question will be: Can I sue my school for getting COVID-19?
Virtually every college and university across the nation has had to alter its manner of operations for the upcoming school year in response to COVID-19.
For some schools, they will continue their practices from Spring 2020 by operating fully online for the Fall 2020 semester. This means that no students will be on campus for classes (with a few exceptions), which essentially eliminates the possibility that students would contract the virus due to the fault of their school.
Many other schools, on the other hand, will be bringing students back to campus for the upcoming school year. While many of these schools are utilizing “flex” or “hybrid” curriculums where students can choose to take their courses online, the schools will nonetheless have students in their classrooms during the semester.
The risk of an outbreak on campus requires the colleges to take many additional precautions to adhere to state and local guidelines. While specific measures will vary from school to school, these are a few common measures that are being taken:
Even with all the precautions that colleges are implementing, they cannot fully eliminate the chances of students contracting COVID-19 while on campus.
While COVID-19 is generally more dangerous to the elderly and people that suffer from pre-existing conditions, younger populations can still contract and spread the virus. Younger people can also still be vulnerable to significant health issues caused by the virus.
If a student does contract COVID-19, there can be serious consequences to the student’s life that go beyond their health. Some of these might include:
If a student contracts the virus, it is possible that it might not be due to their own actions. If this is the case, the student might believe that they are entitled to some form of compensation from their school for exposing them to the virus.
This threat of potential lawsuits from students that contract the virus while on campus has led universities across the nation to search for a manner to limit their liability. One way in which the universities are doing this is by asking students to sign liability waivers before they return to campus.
While the language within the liability waivers will vary by school, the waivers are an attempt to get students to acknowledge:
By acknowledging these items, colleges want the students to admit that they understand that they will be voluntarily putting themselves into an environment where they might be exposed to the virus. Essentially, the colleges will argue in any potential lawsuit that the students assumed the risk of contracting COVID-19, and therefore the school should not be liable.
However, the ability for colleges to use these waivers as a full defense in court is questionable at best. These waivers are essentially contracts not to sue the college because the student understands they will be engaging in risky behavior. It is unlikely that a court will find these to be valid because going to school is not an inherently risky behavior, and the students also do not have an opportunity to negotiate the terms of these waivers.
Therefore, while schools might require students to sign these waivers to utilize campus resources, it is unlikely that they would prevent students from pursuing lawsuits against their college if they contract COVID-19 while at school.
Do Colleges Have a Duty to Protect Their Students?
In order to sue your college for contracting the virus, you would have to prove that your college had a duty to protect you from the virus. To win your case, you would also have to prove that the college breached that duty and that you were injured because of that breach.
It is likely that courts will conclude that colleges do have a duty to protect their students from the virus. This is likely for two reasons: First, the colleges are inviting students back onto their campuses for in-person classes, when they might be capable of going fully-online instead. Second, they are putting the students into an environment that could foreseeably result in harm to students from a spread of the virus.
The college’s duty to protect its students requires that it takes reasonable measures to combat this foreseeable harm. Under the circumstances of returning to campus, it is foreseeable that an outbreak could occur, and therefore it is reasonable that the college must enact proper safety protocols and actively enforce those protocols.
The answer to the question of whether or not a student can sue their school if they contract COVID-19 basically boils down to this: yes, but the chances of success might be slim.
Even with the liability waivers, students will likely be able to bring negligence claims against their college. The student’s argument would be that the college had a duty to protect their students after allowing them to come back to campus during a pandemic, and that this duty was breached when the student was still exposed to the virus.
However, colleges will be able to build a legitimate legal defense if they enacted rigorous safety protocols and strictly enforced those protocols. They can also argue that students had assumed the risk of returning to campus with the knowledge that they might be exposed to the virus.
This defense becomes stronger for colleges that have adopted curriculums that allow students to choose online courses instead, and also for colleges that utilized the aforementioned liability waivers where students acknowledged they were aware of the risks.
Another difficult hurdle that students must overcome to succeed in a lawsuit is that they must prove that they contracted the virus on their college’s campus. If the student had traveled to other places, such as the grocery store or back home, the exact location where the student was exposed to the disease might be extremely difficult to prove.
Again, the answer to this question is yes, you can prevail in the case. However, you might face an uphill battle.
A student’s best chance at winning their case would be if the student were able to prove that their college was not implementing rigorous safety protocols, or that the college was not strictly enforcing the protocols that they did have in place.
The student’s case would also be bolstered if the student could prove that they did not leave campus or put themselves in a position that would have exposed themselves to the virus in an off-campus venue.
Ultimately, the chances of success will depend on the specific circumstances of the case.
If you or someone you know has contracted COVID-19 and believe your school is responsible, you should call attorney Robert Disney today. Mr. Disney is a skilled and experienced personal injury lawyer who can get you the compensation to which you are entitled. Call or text Mr. Disney at 412-999-5765 or visit us online at Disneylaw.com to schedule a free case evaluation.
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