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California Supreme Court says public universities have a duty to protect students from harm

Judges reverse lower court ruling; UCLA student sued the school after she was brutally attacked by another student.

The California Supreme Court has ruled that public universities and colleges in the state have a duty to protect their students from foreseeable acts of violence by fellow students.

In a news release, law firm Panish Shea & Boyle says the 7-0 decision reversed a decision by a state appeals court that sided with UCLA and dismissed a lawsuit against the University of California Regents.

The suit was brought by Katherine Rosen, a UCLA pre-med student who had been slashed across the throat and brutally stabbed multiple times in 2009 by a mentally ill student while working in a chemistry lab on campus.

"To this day, I still struggle to understand how I was viciously attacked amidst a room full of my classmates and TA in the middle of the day while working on an experiment in Young Hall at UCLA," says Katherine Rosen. "I am thrilled and relieved by the justices' decision to overturn this ruling and I am hopeful it will provide the impetus for colleges throughout the country to mobilize their resources to develop and implement real, effective strategies to protect their students."

[Read the full California Supreme Court opinion.]

Prior to the attack on Rosen, different departments and personnel at UCLA had documented numerous red flags about her assailant, Damon Thompson, relating to erratic, violent behavior as a result of schizophrenia.

He had made numerous threats against students, including Rosen, and despite these warning signs, UCLA failed to perform any type of threat assessment pursuant to its own policies and procedures, the suit contends.

In 2010, Rosen sued the Regents of the University of California and several UCLA employees. She asserted that the defendants had breached their duty of care by failing to adopt reasonable measures that would have protected her from Thompson’s foreseeable violent conduct.

An appeals court panel ruled in October 2015 that a public university has no general duty to protect its students from the criminal acts of other students. Rosen appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.

"Today's decision by the California Supreme Court not only begins to bring justice to Katherine Rosen but forces universities and colleges to take responsibility for the safety and well-being of their students," says Brian Panish, one of Rosen's attorneys. "The violent and brutal actions of Ms. Rosen's attacker were foreseeable and this decision reinforces what we believed all along: UCLA and colleges throughout the state have a duty to protect their students from known risks while on campus."

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