U.S. Colleges Asking Federal, State Governments to Block COVID-19 Lawsuits

Because the liability exposures to college campuses are so significant, institutions are asking both the federal and state governments to pass legislation that would shield them from legal claims related to COVID-19.

U.S. Colleges Asking Federal, State Governments to Block COVID-19 Lawsuits

American institutions of higher education are facing liability exposures related to the coronavirus pandemic on at least two fronts.

With most campuses having transitioned from in-person classes to distance learning this spring, many  are dealing with lawsuits from students demanding tuition refunds. At least 100 lawsuits have been filed against colleges for fee reimbursements.

Additionally, once students, faculty and staff return to face-to-face classes in the fall, institutions of higher education could be sued when these individuals are infected with COVID-19.

It’s unclear if risk waivers signed by students would adequately protect a campus if a student gets sick. In Ohio State University’s (OSU) case, campus officials claim the waiver the school is requiring its football players to sign before they can begin to practice is intended to educate the players rather than enable OSU to avoid liability.

Because the liability exposures to college campuses are so significant, institutions are asking both the federal and state governments to pass legislation that would shield them from legal claims related to COVID-19.

Such protections are not without precedent. Federal law insulates vaccine and gun manufacturers, reports The Hill. Healthcare professionals who volunteer to assist during the pandemic, as well as makers of N95 masks also have immunity.

Higher education groups are pushing Congress to also authorize protections for colleges and universities, reports Education Dive. American Council on Education (ACE) President Ted Mitchell sent a letter to members of Congress in late May urging passage of legislation that would shield campuses.

“I am writing today to urge you to quickly enact temporary and targeted liability protections related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mitchell said in the letter. “While these crucial protections are likely necessary for many sectors of the American economy, this letter focuses on the need to safeguard higher education institutions and systems, affiliated nonprofits, and healthcare providers and facilities from excessive and speculative lawsuits arising out of the pandemic…

“These protections should be conditioned on following applicable public health standards, and they should preserve recourse for those harmed by truly bad actors who engage in egregious misconduct.”

Universities are also requesting help from the states.

Louisiana’s legislation that’s currently being debated would only allow lawsuits if the campus were grossly negligent in preventing coronavirus infections. Connecticut is considering a “safe harbor” for schools that follow certain COVID-19 planning measures. Maine and New Jersey are considering similar protections, reports Education Dive.

On June 24, North Carolina’s legislature approved Senate Bill 208, which would provide immunity for institutions of higher education for claims related to COVID-19 closures for the spring of 2020.

About the Author

Robin Hattersley Gray
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Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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