Legal Travels

School Liability and Study Abroad Programs

by Claire Crowley-

Morgan was an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona. He spent a semester studying in China at Nanjing American University. The study abroad program allowed for side trips throughout the region. The program offered students school sponsored trips with faculty and also allowed  students to organize their own side trips during the semester.

Morgan attended a student organized trip to Mount Everest. While at base camp, which is approximately 18,000 feet above sea level, Morgan developed and then died of altitude sickness.

Morgan’s mother, Elizabeth, filed a lawsuit in Arizona. She sued the governing body of the University of Arizona, the Arizona Board of Regents and Nanjing American University, L.L.C., d/b/a/ Yangtze International Study Abroad. Elizabeth brought a wrongful death negligence claim against the defendants.

A plaintiff alleging a claim for negligence under Arizona common law has the burden to show: (1) duty; (2) breach of that duty; (3) cause-in-fact; (4) legal (or proximate) causation and (5) resulting damages.

The court first had to examine whether or not the defendants owed a duty of care to Morgan. Elizabeth argued that the student-school relationship imposes a duty of care on the defendants and that public policy also imposes a duty of care.

The court examined the varying degrees of the duty of care owed to students by schools.

Arizona case law shows the duty most clearly applies in on-campus activities in the primary and secondary school context, where the relationship is custodial. Arizona case law is less clear whether and to what extent the duty applies in off-campus activities in the primary and secondary school context. In the college and university context, courts in other jurisdictions are split on whether a college owes an affirmative duty to its students.

The court found that a college or university may owe a duty to its students “to risks that occur while the student is at school or otherwise engaged in school activities.” The court notes that the duty of care that a school owes to its students is not all encompassing and can be limited by time and geography.

The court had to determine whether or not Morgan’s trip to Mount Everest was considered  a school activity.  

Arizona cases have identified the following factors in determining whether an off-campus activity is deemed a school activity: (1) the purpose of the activity; (2) whether the activity was part of the course curriculum; (3) whether the school had supervisory authority and responsibility during the activity, and (4) whether the risk students were exposed to during the activity was independent of school involvement. Courts elsewhere also have looked at whether (5) the activity was voluntary or was a required school activity; (6) whether a school employee was present at or participated in the activity or was expected to do so and (7) whether the activity involved a dangerous project initiated at school but built off campus.

The court examined the facts surrounding the trip to Mount Everest. The trip, details of the trip and the cost of the trip were not part of the study-abroad program or any course curriculum, and no academic credit was awarded for the trip. At the students’ request, the professors agreed to allow the students to make up classes they missed if they participated in the trip but the defendants had no supervisory authority over, or responsibility for, the trip, and no faculty or staff went on the trip.

The court ultimately concluded that Morgan’s trip to Mount Everest was not a school activity and therefore the defendants had no duty of care toward Morgan and the other students  while they were on the trip.

Claire Crowley