News was released today that attorneys for Sharon Love, mother of Yeardley Love, has filed suit against the University of Virginia, UVA men’s lacrosse coach Dom Starsia, UVA men’s assistant coach Marc van Arsdale, and UVA Athletic Director Craig Littlepage, for $29,450,000 because of the killing of Yeardley Love two years ago by UVA men’s lacrosse player George Huguely. The lawsuit claims that each of the defendants had a “special relationship” to its students, and a duty to “protect and keep its students safe.” The suit details all of the problems with Huguely’s “out-of-control alcohol abuse,” and argues, in essence, that the University and its employees had a duty to the other students to “refer Huguely for treatment or counseling for alcohol/substance abuse or anger/aggressive behavior management, or to report Huguely’s potential risk of violence to the UVA Policy on Preventing and Addressing Treats or Acts of Violence.” You can find that policy on line here.
This language of a “special relationship” is important in Virginia law, because of a decision by the Virginia Supreme Court in 2009 — Kellermann v. McDonough, 278 Va. 478, 684 S.E.2d 786 (2009). In that case, 14-year-old Jaimee Kellermann was spending the night at the McDonough home. Before the Kellermanns would allow their daughter to spend the night, they asked the McDonough family what the plans were, and made it clear that they did not want their daughter going anywhere that night, stating in particular “no boys in cars.” The McDonoughs agreed, and then dropped the girls off at a mall, unsupervised. The girls wound up in a car being driven by a 17-year-old in a street race; the car crashed, and Jaimee was killed. The Virginia Supreme Court allowed the suit to go forward, because although there is generally no duty to protect someone from someone else’s wrongdoing, if you agree that you will take care of someone and you don’t, that could give rise to liability. In that case, the argument was that the McDonoughs had agreed to take care of Jaimee, and they didn’t.
The next link in the chain here is the Virginia Tech lawsuit, which was tried just two months ago. In that case, the parents of two Virginia Tech students brought suit against the school, arguing that there was a “special relationship” between the school administration and the students that was violated when the administrators didn’t take reasonable action after they got the first news of a shooting in a dorm, before Seung Hui Cho barricaded himself in a classroom building and started shooting. The jury found that there was a special relationship, and that it was violated.
But there is a crucial difference in the law between Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia.
The statutes that created Virginia Tech include Virginia Code §23-122, which reads, in part:
The board shall be charged with the care and preservation and improvement of the property belonging to the University, and with the protection and safety of students and other persons residing on the property…
The statutes that created the University of Virginia include §23-76, which reads, in part:
The board shall be charged with the care and preservation of all property belonging to the University.
Notice the difference? When Virginia Tech was created, the legislature told the Board of Visitors that it has the duty to protect and safeguard the students. The trial court felt that was important in allowing the case to go to the jury; the statutory duty to protect students seems like an admission of a “special relationship.” But not so at UVA. The parents of UVA students might not like to realize that their administration does not claim to have a particular duty to protect its students.
Stay tuned… this could get interesting. WVIR’s coverage is here.