Today’s Idaho Statesman contains an article about a lawsuit filed by a young woman who was at a University of Idaho frat party, apparently got intoxicated and fell out of a third story window. The issue here is liability: is the University or state board of education liable for injuries sustained by a person who is herself violating the law by illegally consuming alcohol? More interesting than the legal question is the comment section of the on-line version of the story – and it serves as a good reminder of how public perception plays a role in our assessment of any civil case. As the lawyer looking at a personal injury case or a wrongful death case, I always start with the obvious – how will the man on the street look at the facts of this case? After all, if the case goes to a jury you will be asking the man on the street for money.
As you might expect, the plaintiff in the U of I case was seriously injured, and it seems likely mounting medical and rehabilitation expenses have motivated her and her family to look for some help in trying to rebuild the young woman’s life. She claims generally that the University and the state board of education did not do enough to safeguard her time at the University. Had window locks or similar devices been installed, perhaps she would not have fallen out of the window and been so seriously injured. In legal terms we would talk about causation here – was the University’s failure the cause of the injury or was there another intervening cause? Maybe her voluntary intoxication?
Check out the comments to the story to see what a tough case this might be to win. Most of the folks posting their "two cents worth" assume the case is frivolous or absurd. As I write this, only one post speaks to the question of whether the University has a duty to do something to safeguard students in the face of known underage drinking at frat parties. And our answers to this question likely are influenced by our own behaviors as college students, and the fear we have as parents of college students that they get drunk and end up with some serious injury.
Shouldn’t the law protect people at their weakest moments? Shouldn’t it protect us – to some degree – against ourselves? Can it?
This is a great case to watch for anyone interested in the intersection of personal responsibility and expected campus party behavior. The plaintiffs have a long battle before a jury considers the question of responsibility here. And we might check back in on this one when the question of summary judgment arises.