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Tort Laws In Higher Education

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One of the most common forms of civil litigation, tort laws have so many aspects to consider. Tort law cases range anywhere from a woman burning her legs and suing McDonald’s for not putting a warning on the lid to let her know that the coffee would be hot to someone suing a Costco for slipping on a wet floor that did not have a wet floor sign to let someone know of the danger. Do not let these examples fool you, tort laws are not just one individual sticking it to big companies, anytime that a situation results in the injury of a person that could have been prevented there is an opportunity for tort laws to be applied. If there is a court case and it does not involve drugs, constitutional law, immigration law, motor vehicle code, and zoning/environmental ordinances than it is most likely a tort law case (Johnson, 2015). Due to the expand of possibilities and vast nature of tort laws, this paper will focus on how tort laws affect and apply within post-secondary educational institutions.

Elements to a Tort Case

According to Babcock (2020), there are four elements to every successful tort case: duty, breach of duty, causation, and injury. Duty denotes the responsibilities of the defendant (person being sued). For example, a college professor’s duty is to provide a safe learning environment where students are encouraged to foster relationships with peers and feel free to express their opinions.

Breach of duty would be described as any moment in time where a defendant does not perform the duties for which they are responsible. For example, the college professor fails to provide a safe learning environment where students are not encouraged to foster relationships with peers and are afraid to share their thoughts and opinions in class for fear of persecution or reprimand.

Causation is defined as the relationship between cause and effect (Babcock, 2020). This means that any possible occurrence that caused someone harm or distress occurred because of something that could have been avoided. For example, a student in a college class is doing a lab and is chemically burned because the professor never stressed or strictly taught the required safety precautions needed when working with chemicals. This breach in duty by the professor would be considered causation for the student’s chemical burn. The resulting chemical burn would be legally referred to as injury, which is the fourth element required in a tort case.

The simplest way to understand the four elements is that the roles and duties of an individual being accused must be clearly defined. When the duties are not upheld by an individual, this breach of duty would be seen as a causation for someone’s injury. When these elements are clearly defined and can be proven, a successful tort case can occur.

Three Main Types of Torts

Babcock (2020), explains that there are three main types of torts: intentional torts, negligence, and strict liability. Intentional torts are when an individual or group of people purposely cause injury to someone. Examples of intentional torts include physical attacks, trespassing, defamation, battery, and false imprisonment.

Strict liability refers to cases where someone can be persecuted via tort laws without directly being at fault. This would be an action that occurs that eventually leads to the injury of someone else. At one point or another while watching television there comes a commercial where someone says, “If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with mesothelioma you may be entitled to legal compensation.” This commercial is an example of a law firm looking for victims of a strict liability tort. At some point someone built a home or other structure and unintentionally used carcinogenic materials, causing someone to get mesothelioma. Although this was not their intention, the builder of these structures would be responsible for the injuries caused to anyone that was affected by the carcinogenic materials. Other examples of strict liability include animal attacks and any activity that is abnormally dangerous.

The final and most common type of tort is negligence. Negligence refers to an individual’s breach of duty. The previous example of the professor not teaching proper safety precautions to his students resulting in chemical burns would be a negligence tort case.

Ethical Implications within Higher Education

As mentioned previously, the focus of this paper will be how these tort laws affect higher education. As you continue to read, consider the following questions, how many people do you know in the professional world that purposely do not uphold their duties? Have you met someone that makes mistakes on purpose? Many tort cases involve people who had good intentions, but the reality is that accidents happen all the time and unfortunately people get hurt. This is why tort laws exist, it is up to the plaintiff (person suing) to prove that the defendant was at fault and that not all of the necessary precautions were taken.

Any college/university employee that is hired is literally paid to do their job. When applying, institutions provide a job description that outlines duties and roles for which a hire is responsible. Prior to being hired, candidates must understand the roles and responsibilities of the position for which they are applying as their salary reflects the job that they are expected to do. It is with this understanding that any employee within a higher education institution must uphold their side of the deal. If the school for which an individual is employed does not fulfill their end of the deal and misses a payment to their staff or faculty, many people would be upset and would take immediate notice. Likewise, if an individual is not maintaining the set standards that are required of them, they will be failing not only the school, but the students that they have sworn to serve. There is no excuse for cutting corners and for not going out of one’s way to ensure that all the necessary precautions are taken. It is when these ideals are not upheld that an individual is fully liable for the injuries that occur to others. This is the breach of duty that tort laws will seek to punish.

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For higher education institutions to be successful, it requires an entire team of staff and faculty to come together and keep the institution a well-oiled, running machine. If someone is upholding their duties to the highest standards and they see someone not doing the same, it is up to them to bring it up to the attention of the individual at fault as this type of behavior will eventually lead to a negative image of the school in general and the staff/faculty as a whole. If said individual continues to fail to perform their duties, then it is crucial that further steps be taken. These steps can include: reporting the individual to their direct supervisor, placing the employee on a probationary period in which they are given a deadline or final warning to fix the mistake, as well as the dismissal of the individual for not fulfilling their contractual responsibilities.

An ideal that the author of this paper holds is that anything that you do in life should be done to the best of your ability. An individual should not pick and choose when they will place effort on a matter. If a culture like this is fostered within a higher education institution, then a lot of the tort law claims and injuries that occur would be avoided. This can be avoided not only from the side of the higher education employee but also from the side of those that are potential victims of a tort case. This ideal creates an environment in which everyone can have the peace of mind that everything that could possibly be done to maintain a safe environment has been done. An environment in which there is no liability on anyone because an injury that occurs is not preventable because it was truly accidental in nature. This mentality also fosters a mindset in which someone who is accidentally injured is not looking to impart blame or search for financial compensation.

Tort Laws are State Laws

Besides the four elements of a tort case (duty, breach of duty, causation, and liability) and the three main types of tort cases (intentional, strict liability, and negligence) brought up in the previous sections, there is an important component of tort laws that needs to be considered. According to Johnson (2015), tort law is almost entirely a state law. This is due to the fact that the majority of cases involve contracts, property, and unjust enrichment which are all matters of state law. With this in mind, higher education institutions need to be mindful of decisions within their states and the tendency of direction in which the case decisions are made. It is important to note that tort laws all hold the same basic principles and that the difference in decisions between states may be very minute in nature. However, the biggest factor to play a role in court cases is the minor details so these minute differences between states can make all the difference in one specific case. In the sections to come we will review two cases and the details that directed each case.

Furek v. The University of Delaware

This court case took place in 1991 and was one of the first tort law rulings that began to place a bigger responsibility on higher education institutions for the wellbeing of their students.

In this case, The University of Delaware was aware of the injuries that some of their students were sustaining from fraternity hazing. In response, the dean of students put out a statement that fraternity hazing would not be accepted. This initial statement was not enough to deter the hazing. While the school was in the process of creating an anti-hazing policy, there was another incident. The incident involved Jeffrey Furek who had pledged for a fraternity and was put through the fraternity’s initiation rituals in which one of the fraternity members poured oven cleaner on him while he was blindfolded. This caused Furek chemical burns and severe scarring. Leading him to file a negligence suit against the individual who poured the oven cleaner, the fraternity, and the university. The Supreme Court of Delaware ruled in favor of Furek stating that although the students at the university are adults and are responsible for their safety, the university is also responsible for their safety because of the dense population of young adults that they created at their institution.

At the time, this decision stood apart from other cases where the ruling had been in favor of the universities. In previous cases, there had been a mindset that universities were not babysitters and should not be held responsible for the decisions of the young adults attending their institution.

Coleman v. Soccer Association of Columbia

This case does not directly pertain to a higher education institution but is something to be considered when the athletic staff at a university choose to run athletic camps or host tournaments. The court case took place in Maryland in 2013. The plaintiff James Coleman was a volunteer coach for Soccer Association of Columbia and was leading a practice with a team. Although the association had their own fields, this particular practice took place on a local school field due to all the association’s fields being used at that time. Coleman sustained injuries while retrieving a ball from a goal. On his way to get the ball, he walked under the goal post and decided to hang from the crossbar. The goalpost was not anchored, and he fell backward with the weight of the crossbar falling on his face and causing severe facial fractures that required multiple medical procedures and metal plates to be placed into his face. Coleman filed a lawsuit against the association for their negligence in securing the goal. The association argued that they should not be held responsible because Coleman was negligent by not using the goal for its intended purpose. The association filed that Coleman had committed contributory negligence because his actions risked his own safety.

The final verdict in the case was in favor of the association. Although the jury stated that the association was not free of fault and were negligent for having not ensured the safety of the goals, they also stated that Coleman was at fault for deciding to hang from the top of the goal (contributory negligence). Even though the jury accepted that the association was at fault, the state of Maryland’s tort laws state that someone who is guilty of contributory negligence is solely responsible for any consequences of their actions. Any lawsuit in the state of Maryland that has a slight percentage of contributory negligence will automatically rule in favor of the defendant (Justia, 2020).

Tort Implications on Soccer Coaches

As an employee of a higher education institution I am required to uphold the values and responsibilities that the institution requires of me. Being a soccer coach, I have an added element of responsibility due to the nature of my role within the institution. I not only have a duty to maintain the safety of students within an academic capacity but also through an athletic capacity. With soccer being such a high impact sport, it is up to me to not only maintain a safe environment for student athletes but also ensure that I am properly trained to handle stressful situations in which injury to persons may have occurred. The steps that I take, or lack thereof, are something that will be taken into account if I am ever a defendant in a tort lawsuit. Any precautions that are not taken and lead to the injury of an individual could have severe implications on not only myself, but the school as well.

At Dakota Wesleyan University, the men’s and women’s soccer programs hosted a futsal tournament that had 132 teams participate. With over a thousand athletes coming to participate in our tournament it was important to take the proper precautions. Precautions like having athletic trainers at all three sites, ensuring that all equipment was in proper working order, having field marshals that constantly monitored courts, and having designated areas where teams could warm up and a ball was able to be kicked. All these precautions were added to the liability waivers in which participants accepted that DWU would ensure a safe environment but understood that there was still an inherent risk of injury that comes from playing sports. It is important for me to make sure that I am someone that does not cut corners to save money. This futsal tournament is the biggest fundraiser that our program has every year and as much as we could have saved money by having a travelling athletic trainer, unregistered referees, and untrained marshals if something serious had happened and it was proven that we did not take all necessary precautions we would be in serious risk of a tort lawsuit. When it comes to my work within a higher education institution and tort laws it is better to be safe than sorry.

References

  1. Babcock Law Firm. (2020). The 3 Different Types of Tort Laws. Retrieved April 18, 2020, from https://www.injurylawcolorado.com/legal-library/tort-law-types.html
  2. Johnson, E. E. (2015). Torts: Cases and Contexts (First, Vol. 1). Chicago, IL: eLangdell Press.
  3. Justia. (2020). Furek v. University of Delaware. Retrieved March 20, 2020, from https://law.justia.com/cases/delaware/supreme-court/1991/594-a-2d-506-5.html
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Tort Laws In Higher Education. (2021, September 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 26, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/tort-laws-in-higher-education/
“Tort Laws In Higher Education.” Edubirdie, 21 Sept. 2021, edubirdie.com/examples/tort-laws-in-higher-education/
Tort Laws In Higher Education. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/tort-laws-in-higher-education/> [Accessed 26 Feb. 2024].
Tort Laws In Higher Education [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 21 [cited 2024 Feb 26]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/tort-laws-in-higher-education/
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