Safety First: Pennsylvania Schools May Be Responsible for Students’ Criminal Acts

Recently, the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that a private college cannot escape civil liability for injuries caused by the criminal acts of its students where the institution voluntary assumed a “program of safety” that the community came to rely upon.

Specifically, in the case of Murray v. Albright College, student Patrick Murray was assaulted in the doorway of his dorm room after an authorized search of his floor mates’ dorm room revealed a loaded handgun, approximately one pound of marijuana, and surveillance equipment. Shortly after the search, which was conducted by Albright public safety officers, Murray began to receive threats from unknown individuals who suggested that he had “snitched” on his fellow students. The threats quickly turned to action when two unauthorized males were granted access to Patrick’s dorm by his floor mates, and brutally beat Murray.

In the lawsuit that followed against Albright, Murray and his parents contended that the college was liable for the criminal acts of its students to the extent that it failed to warn or prevent his attack. The trial court, however, disagreed with the Murrays’ contentions, and granted summary judgment to Albright on the basis that it could not reasonably foresee the criminal acts of its students.

On appeal, however, the Superior Court compared Murray’s residence on Albright’s campus to that of the relationship between landlord and tenant. Specifically, the Superior Court explained that, under Pennsylvania law, a landlord is not required to protect a tenant from criminal activity unless the landlord provides a “program of safety.” According to the Court, once a “program of safety” is deemed to exist, a landlord has voluntary assumed the duty to protect its tenant and is therefore exposed to liability for the criminal acts of third parties. Applied in the context of Murray’s attack, the Superior Court concluded that Albright’s student handbook required the college to report criminal violations such as the possession of marijuana to local authorities for prosecution. Given that Albright failed to adhere to this policy and did not involve the local authorities, the Court ultimately reversed, citing that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether the college’s omissions may have allowed the attacks to occur.

All told, the opinion in Murray speaks to the liability of landlords, generally, and educators, specifically, in respect of the criminal acts of third parties. As a result, both groups should remain mindful that, at least in Pennsylvania, the provision of additional safety measures may serve to increase, rather than detract from, a party’s ultimate exposure. As the saying goes, “no good deed goes unpunished.”

Thanks to Adam Gomez for his contribution to this post. If you have any questions, please email Paul at pclark@wcmlaw.com.