Student housing fires are, unfortunately, part of university life, the grim statistics regarding student fire safety demonstrate that the risk of tragic fire events is persistent and significant. Maximizing student fire safety is thus an imperative, both to save lives and to manage university liability.
Wisely managing campus‐related fire risks and student fire safety are essential to managing litigation risks. Reducing the number of fires in and about college campuses is a manageable challenge, albeit one requiring focused effort by university administrators. By being proactive about student fire safety, colleges and universities can save lives, save money, reduce risks, and reduce liability.
Student Housing Fire Liability – Risks Universities and Colleges Face
Lawyers always go after perceived “deep pockets.” When a fatal or injury‐causing fire occurs in student housing, universities and colleges are inevitably embroiled in the associated litigation. This is because parties who suffer losses always try to ascertain whether the school could or should have done something to maximize student fire safety that may have saved a life or prevented a disaster. It’s part of determining “who’s at fault.” It’s in our nature and the nature of our civil litigation system to assess liability by fixing blame. Important related questions in litigation strategy are: who has the ability to pay; who was covered by liability insurance; who has an incentive to settle?
Universities have a target on their backs because “they are in charge.” Some of the questions that end up before courts across the nation when a tragic fire occurs on a college campus include:
- Who was in a position to do something to avoid this terrible tragedy?
- Who was responsible?
- Who had a duty to ensure student fire safety?
- Who could have done something?
- Who had the wherewithal (and resources) to do something?
- Who didn’t do what could have been done?
When the finger‐pointing starts, the answer to such questions is, unfortunately, the University – at least to the mind of victims, their lawyers, the media, and often the judiciary. In fairness to this perspective, Universities are in a position of leadership vis‐à‐vis their employees and their students and can therefore influence behavior.
Unsafe buildings and reckless students are hard to control. The problem for universities is that “unsafe” properties and careless behavior create risks and liability. Campus and off‐campus housing present a unique safety challenge for administrators, primarily because of the youth and inexperience of student housing residents, and the difficulty of monitoring every possible source of fire. If something could have been done to prevent the fire, minimize damage, or make residents safer, and the university failed to take the appropriate action, or implement an available solution, someone will attempt to claim that the university has liability. It’s very easy to argue that “something” could have been done, especially with the benefit of clear hindsight.
The United States is a highly litigious nation. All universities and colleges are exposed to both meritorious and spurious claims spawned by our country’s “litigious culture.” Whether the university was actually at fault or not isn’t necessarily relevant. In our culture it’s not the substance or merit of the claims that counts, it’s “the seriousness of the charge leveled” that often governs the dialog. Claims will be filed against universities regardless of actual liability, regardless of the actual facts, and regardless of a claim’s actual merit. Why?
Filing legal claims creates leverage to settlement. It is a very effective tool. Litigation is extremely expensive, and anyone embroiled in it has a very strong incentive to end the conflict (and stop the bleeding) regardless of the substance or merit of the claims. The initiation of litigation requires any party with “potential” liability – even those who did nothing wrong – to allocate substantial time and resources to a very cumbersome and time‐consuming process. The burden of litigation, especially high‐profile litigation that poses public‐relations issues, can be crushing.
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