April 3, 2014

Adults must take responsibility for their voluntary choices

By Deborah J. La Fetra Senior Attorney

As a freshman at Texas A&M University, 18-year-old Elizabeth Helbing and others were invited by two upperclassmen, Oliver Hunt and John Deaver, on a traditional Aggie outing to lay beneath a railroad bridge at night, and feel the “rush” of the train speeding overhead.  Wearing flip-flops and making her way by the light of cellphones, Helbing successfully walked off the main road, over the bridge, and climbed down to the platform below the bridge to experience the train overhead.  After she climbed back up on the bridge, however, Helbing slipped between the railroad ties and fell 30 feet to the dry streambed below, suffering serious injuries.  A tragic accident to be sure, but is anyone other than herself to blame?

Helbing sued the upperclassmen, claiming they had a duty to protect her from harm.  The trial court ruled in favor of Hunt and Deaver, but the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the upperclassmen owed her a duty of some sort because Helbing alleged that they occupied positions of “leadership,” and “trust” and she felt “guilty” about studying instead of “hanging out” with the other students.   Hunt and Deaver petitioned the Texas Supreme Court to review the case and the high court requested briefing on the merits.

In an amicus brief filed today, PLF argues that the appellate court improperly expanded the concept of duty such that any adult plaintiff can go to trial simply by alleging facts demonstrating some disparity between the parties whereby the adult plaintiff can claim the defendants compromised her freedom to assess risks and make choices.  All competent  adults have legal rights and responsibilities.  These rights and responsibilities do not depend on formal education, demonstrated cleverness, whether one’s friends are a good or bad influence, socio-economic status, physical abilities, or any other of the many variables that shape an adult person’s maturity and wisdom.  A duty for upperclassmen to protect freshmen, on account of their alleged immaturity, cannot be squared with long-settled law that adults, including college students, are competent to make choices to engage in dangerous behavior, and that other adults—be they parents, teachers, or friends—have no legal duty to protect them from harm.

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