No lawsuit immunity for universities

July 20, 2020 6:00 am

Coffman Memorial Union at the University of Minnesota / photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota

Universities and colleges have joined corporations in lobbying Congress for sweeping immunity from lawsuits if workers, students, or customers get COVID-19 while on the premises. As a student at the University of Minnesota Law School, I miss my classmates and the learning experience of Mondale Hall. I want more than anything to return to in-person learning. But this kind of corporate immunity from lawsuits will not make it easier for my campus to re-open — it will only put the lives of students, workers and faculty at risk.

Corporate immunity would give universities and colleges fewer incentives to incorporate even the most basic safety precautions. Which in turn could lead asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic students to expose other students, employees and community members to the virus without being detected.

Workers on college campuses are often people of color — folks already disproportionately suffering from the pandemic. As we’ve seen, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is ill-equipped to handle any violations of worker safety during this pandemic. Despite thousands of coronavirus-safety complaints, OSHA has issued a single citation for safety violations. If universities are granted corporate immunity, campus workers will have no way to hold schools accountable.

Supporters of immunity see it as a necessary step to shield schools and businesses as they begin to re-open. But state tort law only requires reasonable measures to be taken to keep students and workers safe, which could include providing personal protective equipment (PPE) and implementing social distancing in classrooms. 

To sue, a victim would also have to show the school caused the exposure. In other words, it is already hard to sue schools for putting students and workers at risk. Businesses and universities are already protected from tort claims through the inherent difficulties in litigating personal injury cases.

Existing state law already protects schools that are doing their best. They are not expected to take extraordinary or superhuman precautions. I don’t expect my school to take extreme measures — I know I play a part in ensuring my safety and my classmates’ safety too. Corporate immunity protects unreasonable failures to implement safety precautions. Universities and colleges should not be disincentivized to protect those that rely on them for education, job security and so much more.

As I prepare for my second year of law school, I want to consider how I can be a better remote-learning student and proactively protect myself and my classmates should in-person classes resume. At the same time, I want to be reassured that my university will take at least basic safety precautions. Corporate immunity essentially allows universities to pass the risk of re-opening onto the students, employees, and greater communities.

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Emilie Erickson
Emilie Erickson

Emilie Erickson is a second-year student at the University of Minnesota Law School. She has written this piece in conjunction with the People’s Parity Project, a nationwide network of law students organizing to unrig the legal system and build a justice system that values people over profits.