The California Supreme Court has an iconic status in American tort law. It is, after all, the Court that gave us strict products liability. It also led the charge to liberate negligence law from no-duty rules that barred various claims against negligent drivers and landowners.
Perhaps the best known of the Court’s duty decisions is Tarasoff v. Board of Regents (1976). A Berkeley graduate student (Poddar) became obsessed with a young woman (Tarasoff). Eventually, Poddar confronted Tarasoff at her parents’ home and stabbed her to death. The Court held that, although Tarasoff lived off campus and was not an enrolled student, because Poddar had talked about killing Tarasoff with his therapists, they were obligated to take steps to protect her. Like most other Torts professors, we teach Tarasoff as emblematic of the California Court’s then-progressive, pro-plaintiff disposition, and its role as a trailblazer for courts around the country.
Imagine our surprise, then, to read a recent California Court of Appeal decision ruling that, so far as California law is concerned, universities owe no duty to their students to protect them against attacks by other students. More jarring still was that this case—Regents v. Superior Court—featured both another horrific knife attack and the same defendant as in Tarasoff: the Regents of the University of California. As Justice Perluss argued in a persuasive dissent, the Court of Appeal’s holding that UCLA owed no duty of care to its student is untenable. The core issue in the case is not duty, but breach (and perhaps causation). Breach, of course, is a question for the jury.