In an unpublished decision, Hindenach v Olivet College (No. 340540), the Michigan Court of Appeals found no liability for a college and professor during a school field trip to Italy. The field trip, which lasted for 2.5 weeks and capped off an art course at Olivet, was attended by student Johnathan Hindenach. Before the field trip, Hindenach disclosed to Olivet that he was taking anti‑psychotic and anti‑depressant medications, but Olivet was not made aware of any psychotic tendencies he may have had.
Hindenach had multiple issues with his roommates during the trip. He believed they were bullying and teasing him – the alleged behavior continued over the course of multiple nights. The roommate problems culminated on a May night when Hindenach believed his roommates were trying to kill him. The roommates prevented Hindenach from leaving their hotel, until an Olivet professor became involved and instructed them to release Hindenach. After the roommates complied, Hindenach fled into the streets and eventually killed an Italian citizen. Hindenach was arrested, found not responsible for the death by reason of insanity, and sentenced to five (5) years in a judiciary psychiatric hospital.
Hindenach’s mother (his guardian) sued Olivet and the art professor, alleging that they had negligently failed to monitor Hindenach’s mental health, which eventually led to the killing, incarceration, and hospitalization. The Court of Appeals disagreed. It noted that Olivet and the professor had no obligation to prevent the injuries suffered by Hindenach. As a preliminary matter, Hindenach’s medication listing was not enough to inform Olivet that he would have a psychotic episode, and the professor was not even aware of the listing. More importantly, the court emphasized that Olivet and the professor were entitled to assume Hindenach would obey the criminal law. It was simply not foreseeable that Hindenach would eventually kill a stranger and be imprisoned and hospitalized thereafter. The court dismissed the case.
Although the student in this case was unsuccessful, it is important to understand that schools do often have a duty to their students during field trips. While killing is not foreseeable, a student who self‑harms may result in liability to the school, if the school was aware of a likelihood for self‑harm. As always, Lusk Albertson recommends speaking to legal counsel regarding the possible duties owed to students during school activities off‑campus, and the associated risks.