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My friend was robbed the other day on university campus at night. He lost his laptop and his mobile phone. So, all of his work is now gone. He is having a mental breakdown at the moment.

So, I want to know if it's possible to sue the university because it happened on their campus and it is their responsibility to make sure all students are safe on campus.

  • In what country (and if the US what state) did this take place? It may matter. – David Siegel Jan 21 '19 at 1:24
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Probably not.

Overview

You haven't specified a jurisdiction. I will talk about Australia because that's what I'm familiar with.

In Australia the most relevant area of law would be tort, specifically negligence. The university would be liable to pay damages if a court found that it owed a duty of care to your friend, that it breached that duty, and that your friend suffered injury ('injury' including loss of property as well as mental suffering) as a result of that breach.

Also potentially relevant would be contract law, if your friend and the university had entered into some kind of agreement relating to his security, or equity, if the university had somehow acted to lead your friend to rely, to his detriment, on the university protecting him (promissory estoppel: Walton Stores v Maher). However, I think this is unlikely unless, for some reason, the university had put up signs saying 'Please come onto our land and we will be responsible for your security'.

Negligence

You have stated that 'it is their responsibility to make sure all students are safe on campus.' It is not clear whether you mean to state that as a fact or whether you are suggesting it as a possible hypothetical basis of liability. I am not aware of a case that establishes the proposition that universities do have such a duty.

The judgments in Modbury Triangle Shopping Centre v Anzil (2000) 205 CLR 254 discuss the liability of the occupier of land (such as the university in your example) for injuries inflicted by criminals upon people present on land (such as your friend in your example). In that case, the defendant ran a shopping centre. The plaintiff worked at a shop in the shopping centre. At the end of the plaintiff's shift at 10.30pm, it was dark outside because the shopping centre switched the lights in the car park off at 10pm. The plaintiff was mugged in the shopping centre car park on his way out to his car.

The key question there was whether the defendant shopping centre was under a duty to keep the lights on for workers leaving work (along with the question of how the failure to illuminate the area led to the attack i.e. whether the plaintiff still have been mugged if the lights were on). Therefore the question that we are presently interested in, about an occupier's responsibility to protect visitors, is only dealt with as a side issue in that case.

But the principle is pretty well-established that, generally, you are not responsible to protect another person from the criminal acts of a third person. The common law has a strong presumption against imposing liability for 'omissions' as distinct from acts, which is another way of saying that the courts don't want people being liable to run out into the street and help people. See paragraphs 27 and 28 and thereabouts in Modbury Triangle.

Particular relationships may exist which create such a duty. One is in relation to school children; the school is responsible for taking such care of the child as a parent would. The relevant features of this the school-child relationship include the child's vulnerability as a child and the way the school controls their movements and enviroment during the school day.

I presume that your friend is not a child and the university does not control his or her movements. Therefore a court is likely to be looking at the general principle that the university is not responsible for protecting people from the criminal acts of strangers, and then looking (and probably not finding) any special feature of the relationship between your friend and the university that creates an aspect of vulnerability, reliance or control that makes it reasonable to impose a duty of care.

Some people think that there is a general principle that if something bad happens to them, some identifiable person with cash must be responsible for paying compensation, whether that is an insurer, the government or a nearby corporation. The common law has not picked up that principle. The common law would slate the responsibility home primarily to the mugger. Sue them. What does the university have to do with it? Conceivably the university might also be liable along with the mugger, but the fact that an injury occurred and nobody else can in practice be held responsible does not in itself make the university liable.

As mentioned by Pat W., there may be some other feature that creates a duty, such as if the university had made some change to the environment that allowed made the attack to occur when it wouldn't otherwise have e.g. moving your friend's dormitory so that the only entrance was through a dark alley, or if the attack occurred inside a university building where the university controlled entry (even then not sure that would get your friend over the line).

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  • + 1. Nice background! – Pat W. Jun 2 '16 at 15:04
  • It seems like an insurer would be responsible for paying compensation, provided that the victim had purchased a relevant policy beforehand. – phoog Jun 2 '16 at 17:39
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    @phoog You are correct. The problem that sometimes arises in litigation is where corporation C has purchased insurance; A suffers an injury; A has not purchased insurance; A nonetheless expects C's insurer to pay for the injury. Sometimes there is an extra step: A establishes that B is liable in tort for the injury, and then claims that B is privy to C's insurance contract, so that A can get cash; this is similar to (but not exactly) what happened in Trident v McNiece Bros (1988) 165 CLR 107. – Patrick Conheady Jan 14 '19 at 11:42
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    @PatrickConheady if A has suffered an injury and C is insured, then before C's insurer will pay, it must be established that C is liable and that C's policy covers that liability. I realize that people sometimes misunderstand this, but as far as A is concerned it is C who should pay. Whether C is insured or not isn't any concern of A's except perhaps in the risk analysis of deciding whether to sue. If A also has insurance that covers the loss then it's between A's insurer and C or C's insurer rather than A himself. – phoog Jan 14 '19 at 14:01
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Typically the victims of armed robberies file police reports, and the prosecutor brings charges on behalf of the State. In other words, individuals don't bring suits for armed robbery.

What you might be referring to is that the University breached a tort duty to protect. There is some case law on the topic. For example, in Kline v. 1500 Mass. Ave. Apartment Corp., 439 F.2d 477 (D.C. 1970) a landlord that had removed certain security features (the doorman), and that was on notice that assaults were occurring in the building's common areas, was liable to the victim of one of those assaults.

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In the UK, you cannot sue for armed robbery as it is not a civil tort. You could still sue for trespass to goods but the odds are that you will only be able to successfully sue the person responsible, not the university.

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