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University student's drinking death a 'liability wake-up call'

A lawsuit filed against Dalhousie University in Halifax after a 19-year-old student died from alcohol poisoning in residence is a wake-up call to all institutions to review their best practices, says Toronto litigator Michael Lesage.

Lesage, whose practice at Michael’s Law Firm includes insurance, business law, personal injury, malpractice and other liabilities, told AdvocateDaily.com it will depend on the facts in the case as to whether the university had a duty of care to the young woman.

In a statement of claim, parents Peter Shang and Weihong Bai of China say they are suing Dalhousie and four other students as well as Halifax-based McKesson Canada Corp., the company that operates the province's free medical help phone line, otherwise known as 811.

The student had been drinking in residence with other students, vomited and passed out, the claim states. They called the medical helpline and were told to monitor her, but by morning she had stopped breathing and died, it claims.

The suit alleges Dalhousie failed to take steps to prevent drunkenness and adequately supervise its residents and guests.

“There aren’t many reported cases where universities are sued,” says Lesage. “For example, the jurisprudence establishes that the courts will ‘defer to universities in matters of academic disputes except in narrow circumstances,’" he says, citing Liang v Brock University, 2015 CanLII 31300 (ON SCSM).

However in this case, it’s parallel to a $20.5 million suit launched by eight students at York University who were in the food court of the student centre in 2014 when a gun accidentally discharged. Two were injured and six were bystanders who have suffered psychologically, the suit claims. 

“Universities do owe their students a duty of care, which would allow students to sue their institutions when they suffer injuries there,” Lesage says. “In terms of the drinking case, it would clearly fall within both the parameters of general negligence law and, in Ontario, within the confines of the Ontario Occupiers Liability Act.”

More recently, he says, the parents of two men shot at the Eaton Centre in 2014 initiated a $4 million suit against the mall owners, the shooter who was convicted of murder and jailed, Toronto and Hamilton police and the province of Ontario claiming all failed to stop the incident.

“In this case at Dalhousie I would imagine the real questions are going to be, how much did the university know about students drinking in residence, what did their staff do about it, and what level of awareness and programming did they have in place to counsel students?” Lesage says. “I would think examples of students drinking and passing out and perhaps suffering alcohol poisoning — which can be fatal obviously — are not that uncommon at all universities and college where there are residences.”

Lesage says he’ll be following the progress of the court case closely and says in the meantime, educational institutions should review their policies and strategies to see whether they need to be refreshed.

"It will come down to the specific facts in this case, but universities are well aware of student drinking and the problems it brings,” he says. “Depending on where it goes it could lead to the expansion of liability at all these institutions.”

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