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$2.5M Judgment Against University for Overseas Sex Assault Serves as Reminder that Liability is Not Limited to Title IX

February 4, 2021


On February 2, 2021, the Rhode Island School of Design (“RISD”) was found to be liable under a theory of negligence for its failure to protect a former student who was raped while attending a RISD sponsored study-abroad program in 2016.

The plaintiff was awarded $2.5 million dollars in damages.

During a bench trial in the District Court for the District of Rhode Island, the presiding judge heard evidence and testimony that RISD offered a study-abroad program for its students in Ireland. RISD officials admitted it owed a duty to provide safe and secure housing to its students in its school-sponsored program, even abroad. Students were assigned to co-ed houses with individual rooms that did not have workable locks on the individual bedroom doors.  The Court found the school’s failure to provide this important safety measure sufficient proof of the school’s negligence, and also the direct and proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury.  Her assailant accessed her unlockable room in the middle of the night, where he orally and vaginally raped her.

The Court noted that RISD was on notice of the increased risk of sexual assault in co-ed housing units because of a prior assault reported out of a similar program based in Italy several years prior, but stopped short of requiring such evidence to establish a duty of care.

This ruling is an important reminder to educational institutions of the liability risks they face as a result of sexual misconduct outside of Title-IX specific exposure. Under presently promulgated regulations, Title IX recipients are under no obligation to respond to allegations of sexual violence that occurs abroad, even if between two of its own students who later return to campus in the United States.

Under Obama-era Title IX guidance, largely expected to be brought back under the Biden administration with a few potential changes, courts were split on whether Title IX applied abroad.  In King v. Bd. Of Control of Eastern Michigan University, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan held that, “study abroad programs are operations of the University, which are explicitly covered by Title IX and which necessarily require students to leave U.S territory to pursue their education.” However, in Phillips v. St. George’s University, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York dismissed the complaint of a student who was sexually assaulted while studying in Grenada, finding Title IX was not intended to apply outside of the United States.

The RISD finding and award highlights the importance of comprehensive risk assessment policies and procedures both within Title IX regulatory requirements and from a broader liability perspective.  While it may seem that colleges and universities carry diminished responsibility to respond to allegations of sexual misconduct under the current Title IX Regulations, schools still must act diligently to protect their students, whether abroad or at-home.

If you have any questions regarding this recent decision or your Title IX requirements and obligations, Ashley R. Lynam or Kacie E. Kergides of Montgomery McCracken’s Institutional Response and Sexual Misconduct Liability groups are available for assistance.