My Turn: UNH should remove ‘assumption of risk’ language from agreement

For the Monitor
Published: 8/8/2020 6:40:12 AM

The University of New Hampshire is set to reopen for in-person classes in three weeks. Students, particularly those at the Durham campus, are not guaranteed remote options for all classes should they feel unsafe returning to campus during the global pandemic. Remote options for faculty and staff are even more limited. Yet instead of addressing student and worker concerns and guaranteeing an online option, UNH is spending time and money looking for legal escape routes should COVID-19 come to campus.

UNH is a member of the American Council on Education (ACE), a group that recently urged Congress to enact liability protections for universities “from excessive and speculative lawsuits arising from the pandemic.” This means that seeking redress through the courts for COVID-19 exposure at the university would not be an avenue for affected students and workers. Essentially, sweeping corporate immunity measures like the one ACE lobbied for would shift the burden of shouldering COVID costs from the university to students and workers.

UNH Law’s People’s Parity Project chapter filed a right-to-know request that revealed the university has paid ACE over $250,000 in the last decade for membership, conferences, and “other purchases,” including $30,000 this year. That’s $30,000 that could have been used to purchase PPE, plexiglass for classrooms, improvements to HVAC systems, and other safety measures, but instead went to a group lobbying to make it harder to hold universities accountable for being negligent in protecting students and workers from COVID-19.

State tort law already protects corporations and universities who exercise reasonable care from negligence lawsuits. This means unless a student can show the university acted unreasonably in implementing COVID-19 safety measures, they already cannot be held liable. At a time when the stakes could not be higher, there is no reason to lower the standard of care required of colleges and universities.

Beyond lobbying for immunity from lawsuits, UNH is working to ensure that regardless of what happens at the federal level, the university system will face no threat of consequence for a failure to keep students and workers safe. UNH is asking students to sign an “informed consent agreement,” which the university claims is for students to agree to hygiene and safety protocols. However, the agreement includes the statement that by signing, students “assume the risks associated with being at the University of New Hampshire including the risk of exposure to COVID-19.” UNH continues to tell students the agreement is not a liability waiver. According to Georgetown Law Professor, Heidi Li Feldman, this statement is disingenuous because this is standard language businesses use to avoid liability. Other schools, like the University of Alabama, removed similar language from their acknowledgment form following student outcry. UNH should follow Alabama’s lead.

With three weeks until classes start, UNH is already dangerously prioritizing in-person classes and its bottom line over the health and safety of students and workers by denying the vast majority of work-from-home accommodations to those who need it. Limiting university liability doesn’t just make it harder to hold the university accountable in court, it removes the legal incentive to invest in keeping students and workers as safe as possible.

UNH must oppose corporate immunity and remove the “assumption of the risk” language from the “informed consent agreement.” Right now, many students and workers don’t feel safe returning to campus but don’t feel like they have a true choice in the matter.

Between lobbying for immunity and requiring students to sign the “informed consent agreement,” UNH has covered its bases to ensure that regardless of what happens on campus this fall, the university will come out scot-free. Let’s hope the same can be said for students and workers.

(Tess Farley is a student at UNH Law and a board member of UNH’s People’s Parity Project.)


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