Monday, November 4, 2013
this story on NBC Affiliate WECT, a jury awarded over $50,000 to a student who sued his college for breach of contract. The damages reflect not only tuition and fees but also the student's opportunity costs. The student's argument was that the school was contractually obligated to screen applicants for criminal backgrounds that could prevent them from completing their coursework in medical fields which require that some coursework be done at hospitals.
The school did not screen the student until he had been enrolled in the program for 18 months. At that point, the student was dismissed from the school. He sought readmission but was denied. The school offered $25,000 in settlement but withdrew the offer during trial.
This is a rather surprising result. We wonder whence comes the contractual duty for the school to screen applicants for criminal backgrounds. One would think that the obligation would run the other way. That is, students ought to have a duty to disclose criminal backgrounds, because it is far cheaper and more effective to require such disclosure than it is for colleges to independently investigate each student. One would expect that the application form would have a section requesting such disclosure, but even if it does not, all it would take would be some sort of statement somewhere on a website or in a student bulletin describing the college's policies. If the college does have a duty to investigate, we wonder why the duty would run to the student rather than to some accrediting or professional body.
Finally, there is a the question of damages. Apparently, the student was awarded both a full tuition rebate and compensation for the income he forewent by pursuing his education. If it is indeed the case that the college had a contractual obligation to screen the student's criminal background and that contractual duty ran to the student, the jury award assumes that the college gave the student nothing of value because he could not enter his chosen field of study. There are two problems with this: 1) even in a professional school, the value of a degree exceeds its value as a means of entry into an occupation; and 2) even if the student had completed his education, he would not be guaranteed a position. There ought to be some sort of set-off from the jury award to account for the benefit that the college conveyed to the student. Otherwise, the case is a bit of a stick in the eye to educators.