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Judge Rules Sexual Assault Lawsuit Can Proceed to Trial

— January 7, 2020

Federal judge says rape lawsuit can proceed to a jury trial.

U.S. District Judge John McConnell in Providence, Rhode Island, has ruled that a lawsuit by a female Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) student against the college can proceed to trial.  The plaintiff claimed she was raped by a fellow student while studying abroad in Ireland in 2016.  She alleged the school was negligent in protecting her against the assault.  McConnell, nominated by former U.S. president Barack Obama, denied the school’s request to dismiss the lawsuit, nothing that the incident occurred in a room provided by the institution.

In his decision to allow the suit to proceed, McConnell wrote “the sexual assault of the female student occurred not at a party, but in her RISD provided sanctuary during a school-sponsored summer term abroad.”  Therefore, the assault happened in what is equivalent to school property and “the school was negligent and owed her a duty of care.”  He also wrote that “a special relationship existed between RISD and Jane Doe in which she reasonably relied on the college to act with due care in providing her housing.”

Judge Rules Sexual Assault Lawsuit Can Proceed to Trial
Photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash

According to McConnell, RISD worked with Burren College of Art in Ireland to secure housing for the fourteen students enrolled in the summer program.  Yet, RISD administrators did not provide the Irish college with any security requirements for the facilities chosen.  Rooms were assigned only based on single- or double-bed preference.  Court documents indicate “Jane Doe and the male student, identified as John Doe, were each assigned a single bedroom on the second floor of one of the houses.”  Thus, both males and females were allowed access to the same floors.  Documents indicate further that “each of the three houses had only one lock, on an exterior door, and that the students would need to decide where to hide the key so everyone could get in.”

The students went out for drinks on June 18, 2016, to celebrate John Doe’s birthday.  John Doe then escorted Jane Doe back to her room and asked for a kiss.  The plaintiff kissed him on the check, closed the door and got into bed wearing all her clothing.  She said she later awoke naked with John on top of her.  She later reported the sexual assault, requesting a no contact order and asked that John Doe be removed from the Ireland program.  He admitted to the rape, was ordered to leave, and was suspended from RISD for three years.

McConnell wrote that Rhode Island law “bore the most significant relationship to the events and the parties.”  Furthermore, he stated, “Under Rhode Island law, a special relationship is predicated on a plaintiff’s reasonable expectations and reliance that a defendant will anticipate harmful acts of third persons and take appropriate measures to protect the plaintiff from harm,” and thus, the case should proceed to a jury trial.

McConnell concluded that Jane Doe “reasonably relied on RISD to act with due care in providing her housing and that such services were included in the tuition costs for the Ireland program.”  He wrote, “The court finds that the relationship between RISD and Ms. Doe gave rise to a duty on the part of RISD to exercise reasonable care in providing secure housing to Ms. Doe for the Ireland Program…Whether RISD exercised such due care is a question of breach to be decided by a grand jury.”


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