Washington State University Not Liable in Off-Campus Rape, Court Rules

Four justices said WSU couldn’t predict or control the perpetrator’s actions despite knowing of past assault allegations made against him.

Washington State University Not Liable in Off-Campus Rape, Court Rules

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PULLMAN, Wash. — The Washington Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Washington State University (WSU) had no duty to protect a student who was sexually assaulted in an off-campus home despite the school’s knowledge of prior complaints made against the convicted assailant.

Five justices agreed that WSU had no type of protective custody over students and therefore had no duty to “control [the victim’s] decisions or actions away from campus,” The Spokesman reports. The justices also said the school could neither predict nor control the actions of the perpetrator and thus could not be held accountable. Four justices disagreed.

According to court documents, the female victim and 23-year-old Thomas Culhane attended an off-campus party in Aug. 2017. The female student was “too weak and intoxicated to push him away” during the assault and started to scream. Culhane then wrapped his hands around her neck, causing her to lose consciousness. He was found guilty of second-degree rape in 2019 and sentenced to nine months in jail. The charges were later reduced and Culhane pleaded guilty to assault with the intent to commit rape.

Culhane was previously enrolled at WSU’s Vancouver campus where two women filed complaints against him, alleging he had sexually harassed and groped them. An investigation by the university into the accusations found him responsible for violating the school’s code of conduct. Culhane was suspended for nine days and was ordered to write an essay about consent. The Aug. 2017 assault occurred three weeks after he transferred to the Pullman campus.

The victim filed a Title IX lawsuit against WSU, claiming it failed to fulfill its duty of protecting students by not taking adequate measures against Culhane despite knowing of the past allegations, according to BNN. In 2021, a federal judge ruled that WSU was not responsible for a crime that occurred off campus. The victim appealed the ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which asked the Washington Supreme Court to weigh in.

The court further said that while a special relationship exists between universities and students, it only applies to curriculum-based activities and that university students do not require the same level of supervision as K-12 students.

“While sexual assaults are horrific, a university simply has no power to dictate students’ movements off campus and away from the oversight of campus security and administration,” the opinion said. “We place no blame on (the victim). But a lack of blame on the victim does not establish blame and duty on a third party. The blame lies on Culhane.”

Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis was one of four who disagreed with the ruling, writing in her dissenting opinion that the school’s duty to protect “is not confined to the campus borders if the harm is reasonably foreseeable.”

“In light of our robust knowledge around the dangers university students are facing and the response by some universities, reducing the relationship to that between a business owner and a business invitee, as the majority opinion does, would excuse universities from accountability and would be inconsonant with the reality of the college experience and universities’ roles in students’ lives,” she wrote.

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Amy is Campus Safety’s Executive Editor. Prior to joining the editorial team in 2017, she worked in both events and digital marketing.

Amy has many close relatives and friends who are teachers, motivating her to learn and share as much as she can about campus security. She has a minor in education and has worked with children in several capacities, further deepening her passion for keeping students safe.

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