Is UK liable if students contract COVID-19?


University of Kentucky students walk into the student center on Sunday, Aug. 16, 2020, at the Gatton Student Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

Lauren Campbell

As of Aug. 18, 301 UK students had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Lexington Fayette County Health Department. Students were tested on their return to campus, since many students were arriving from states with more cases than Kentucky.

Testing upon reopening was meant to mitigate coronavirus brought to campus. But once the virus is on campus, what rights do students have if they contract COVID-19?

Students may assume that UK has a legal responsibility to keep them safe, but according to Dr. Joy Blanchard, an associate professor of higher education at Louisiana State University, that may not actually be the case.

“Typically when courts determine liability, they look to see which party is the proximate cause of the injury. Though universities are aware of the risks of reopening and students falling ill is certainly foreseeable, there is what would be referred to as an assumption of the risk on the part of students,” said Blanchard, whose research focuses on negligence and student safety in higher education.

And because campus is not a closed bubble, students and employees can and will interact with people in Lexington, so there is not a guarantee that someone who contracts COVID-19 got it on campus.

“It would be nearly impossible to determine if a student contracted the virus while on campus, at the grocery store, or some other off-campus facility. To pin the liability on the university would be impossible and, from a legal standpoint, unfair,” said Blanchard.

Legal action from students over the pandemic has so far focused on tuition refunds, not student safety, according to court records.

UK has had one lawsuit filed against it over COVID-19 concerns.

The suit, filed in June on behalf of student Peter Regard, argues UK should have partially refunded tuition and fees after classes were moved online in the spring semester because of the pandemic.

UK refunded part of housing and dining costs to students. UK spokesperson Jay Blanton told the Lexington Herald-Leader that the university did not refund tuition and fees from the spring semester because the money went to ongoing services

Still in its early stages, the suit does not mention any aspect of student safety. Similar lawsuits about tuition and fees were filed by students against at least 25 universities.

Students are divided on whether or not UK should be held responsible for students contracting the virus.

“I don’t really think UK should be held liable if there’s an outbreak just because they’re having to make decisions on the fly without an abundance of information, the same way everyone else is right now,” UK Law student Andrew Calvert said.

Calvert said that “mistakes are going to be made” and that he holds UK less responsible than he does the federal government for the state of the pandemic.

Still, he said he doesn’t not feel safe returning to campus.

“I’ve been doing my best since March to stay isolated and stay safe while I’ve been at work, so being around lots of people indoors again just feels wrong,” Calvert said.

Logan Cole, a senior management and marketing major, he doesn’t feel safe on campus either.

“I believe that we will see a large spike once classes begin,” Cole said. “What am I supposed to do if I sit next to a person who is sick in class? Am I supposed to quarantine for 2 weeks? It takes 24+ hours for a test to come back. Do I miss class while I wait?”

Cole said she does feel that UK should be held more accountable for students’ health.

“I think that students should have been given the option to remain online and not be forced to return to campus for classes. I have a feeling that we will be put back online at some point this fall. Why not give that option now for all courses?” said Cole.

Khari Gardner, a UK senior, is happy he has all online course.

“I feel the risk is too heavy and UK hasn’t done enough to mitigate it,” Gardner said.

UK senior Noah Oldham is concerned about UK’s ability to enforce safety precautions.

“I’m not really certain UK can control what students do in their dorms and I’m certain that they can’t really control what students are doing off campus,” Oldham said.

UK maintains that they are doing all they can for the well-being of students.

“Our advisers and faculty members are working with students to accommodate those individuals who may be at higher risk for COVID-19,” said UK spokesperson Jay Blanton.

But because students can eat at restaurants, go to the gym, use shared and public restrooms, travel, go to parties, go on dates, and meet people in groups, the university faces the risk of an outbreak of COVID-19 on campus by those not following the guidelines, which worries students returning to campus.

UK has published campus guidelines and, in a UKNOW post, explicitly stated that the Student Code of Conduct, based on honor, applies to off-campus violations of safety precautions. Students who violate the guidelines are subject to disciplinary action. However, disciplinary action is a reactionary measure, not a preventative one.

“Their ‘honor code’ expecting students off campus to socially distance and not throw parties is already not working. I see parties already on my block,” Oldham said.

The weekend of Aug. 7 and 8, 11 citations were issued by the police to parties in off-campus neighborhoods popular with students, said UK spokesperson Jay Blanton.

UK has stressed the importance of student compliance, focusing on courtesy and respect with hashtags like #ProtectRespect and #MaskUpCats.

Some students still worry there could be a lack of accountability by the UK administration related to COVID-19.

“Even if the virus mortality rate is .2%, that’s 60 students dead, more than the Virginia Tech shooting. At what point does UK value their students’ lives over money?” Gardner said.

Editor’s Note: Johns Hopkins University currently calculates the COVID-19 case fatality rate as 3.2 percent for the U.S.