College Could Have Premises Liability After Adult Falls Out of Bed

A recent fatal accident at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has raised a number of questions about whether other organizations that provide dormitory facilities should be held accountable for providing the safest possible facilities. In this case, an adult guest in a residence hall fell out of a lofted bed and sustained a fatal head injury.
Under the law of premises liability, owners and managers of property are generally responsible for taking all reasonable steps to prevent people from being injured on their property. One of the main questions in this case is whether the University should have provided safety bedrails.
On August 20, a 49-year-old woman was visiting her 19-year-old daughter on campus as she got ready to begin her first year at Chapel Hill. The young woman has cerebral palsy, and her mother was there to help her adjust to the physical realities of life in a dormitory. Tragically, the student’s mother seems to have fallen out of a raised bed during sleep, suffering a fatal head injury.
Should Students Have to Opt-In to Safety, Or Opt-Out?
Because it is assumed that no foul play was involved, UNC campus police decided not to conduct a formal investigation, so details about the tragedy are somewhat sparse.
University officials didn’t know exactly how high off the ground the bunk bed had been lofted, but university policy allows students to set their beds as high as 77 inches (nearly 6-1/2 feet) off the floor. According to campus housing director Larry Hicks, the beds were not elevated before the young woman moved in.
UNC dormitory beds do not come with safety rails, but the university says that it can provide them upon request.
According to safety consultant Mark Briggs, who oversaw premises liability and other risk management at the University of Illinois for 10 years, some other schools require safety rails on all beds but allow students to request them be removed, if they agree to sign a liability waiver.
“The students don’t like that because it looks childish,” said Briggs. “We can let intelligent adults make some of their own decisions.”
The basic question is “opt in or opt out?” Should the university should start with the assumption that most students won’t want embarrassing safety rails and only provide them upon request? Or should it presume it should provide the safest option and allow students to choose to remove it?
“We are in discussions on this topic as we speak,” Hicks said Thursday.
Before the covid impact on lawyers, UNC had already received 68 requests for bed rails, which is more than double the average for previous years.
“We think it may be because we had a bedrail installed on the lofted bed in the ‘show room’ that we set up for orientation,” Hicks said.
Since the accident, the university has received about 75 more requests for bed rails.

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