Special relationship supports negligence action against RISD.


Byline: Barry Bridges

A sexual assault victim's claim that Rhode Island School of Design was negligent in not providing safe housing accommodations while she was enrolled in an overseas program has lived to see another day.

In weighing RISD's motion for summary judgment, U.S. District Court Chief Judge John J. McConnell Jr. sided with plaintiff Jane Doe, who was raped in her bedroom on the first night of a study program in Ireland organized by the school. McConnell found that the parties had a "special relationship" that gave rise to a duty on the part of the school to exercise reasonable care in providing Doe with secure housing while abroad.

Notwithstanding the past reluctance of courts to find such a relationship between universities and their students, McConnell said the differentiating element in Doe's case was the fact that RISD coordinated the living arrangements.

"In organizing the Ireland Program, RISD undertook to provide housing to Ms. Doe in a foreign country and Ms. Doe reasonably relied on RISD to act with due care," McConnell wrote. "This undertaking and reliance altered the relationship between RISD and Ms. Doe to one that goes beyond the university and adult student relationship that led courts to abandon the doctrine of in loco parentis."

In denying RISD's motion, McConnell indicated that whether RISD exercised such due care is a question for a jury to decide.

[box type="shadow" align="alignright" width="325px"]CASE: Doe v. Rhode Island School of Design, Lawyers Weekly No. 52-144-19 (20 pages)

COURT: U.S. District Court

ISSUE: Could a student who was sexually assaulted in her bedroom while studying abroad in Ireland maintain a negligence action against Rhode Island School of Design, which organized accommodations for the overseas program?

DECISION: Yes, as the student relied on the school to act with due care in providing housing for program participants[/box]

Steven M. Richard of Nixon Peabody's Providence office is representing RISD. Nadeem A. Bezar and David C. Williams, of Kline & Specter in Philadelphia, are counsel for plaintiff Doe. The attorneys did not respond to requests for comments by press time.

Overseas accommodations

At the beginning of the 2015-2016 academic year, RISD's continuing education and global affairs offices began planning a summer study abroad program in Ballyvaughan, Ireland, and selected the Burren College of Art to be the local host school.

Professor Robert Brinkerhoff was the faculty advisor...

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