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Calif. Colleges Not Liable for Off-Campus Injuries, Court Rules

Calif. Colleges Not Liable for Off-Campus Injuries, Court Rules

QUINCY, Calif.

California community colleges and their faculty are not responsible for injuries to students who are engaged in off-campus assignments, a state appellate court has unanimously held.

The decision bars a suit by a Feather River Community College student who suffered crippling injuries when she was thrown from the bed of a classmate’s pickup on an unpaved U.S. Forest Service road while working on a small group mapping assignment.

“As a general rule, a college may require college students to complete an off-campus assignment, without specifying how they are to transport themselves and without assuming a duty of care with respect to the mode of transportation selected,” Justice Richard Sims wrote for the 3-0 Court of Appeal panel.

It is the first case in which a California court has addressed a community college’s potential liability under such circumstances, according to the college’s lawyer, J. Scott Smith of Sacramento. Earlier decisions have involved primary and secondary students.

The decision clarifies the law for community college districts in the state, he said.

The injured student’s lawyer, Gregory Byberg of Beverly Hills, said he does not know yet whether his client will appeal further.

In May 2000, Abigail Stockinger was enrolled in a class that trained guides for horse-packing trips, according to the decision. She and several classmates in her group were on an assignment to map a route for an upcoming class pack trip.

The instructor, Russell Reid, was not involved in choosing the members of Stockinger’s group, planning her group’s outing or providing transportation to the scene, the court said. Reid said no other student had been seriously injured in the 15 years he had been making such an assignment.

According to the court, driver Richard McGrath was the only member of the group with a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Stockinger rode in the bed, which had no safety belt. “Although she knew it was dangerous to ride in the bed of a pickup and knew she would not have any seatbelt protection, she agreed to do so,” the court said.

McGrath was driving too fast and skidding around corners, the court said, even after Stockinger asked him to slow down. She didn’t ask him again and was thrown from the truck after it skidded and hit something.

The accident left her a paraplegic. McGrath was not sued but Byberg said his client collected about $150,000 to $200,000 from his insurance policy and her parents’ policy.

A Plumas County Superior Court judge dismissed all claims against Feather River and Reid without trial.

— By Eric Freedman

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