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Student death at Lewis & Clark College raises legal questions

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Meerah Powell
/
OPB
Caution tape surrounds the area around Lewis & Clark College’s swimming pool on Aug. 30, 2022. One student died and two were injured Monday night when a free-standing column collapsed. Investigators learned that several hammocks were attached to the column when it collapsed.

Lewis & Clark College continues to hold classes while mourning a student who died Monday following an accident on the Southwest Portland campus. Members of the campus community gathered Thursday night, and college administrators have been spreading the word about the availability of counselors and other supports for students who need them. Many questions surrounding the incident are still unanswered — including if there might be a lawsuit against the school and if it would be successful.

The accident occurred the first night of the fall semester. According to accounts from Portland Fire & Rescue and the college, six students attached hammocks to free-standing brick columns that are part of the campus’s historic Grape Arbor. One of the columns fell, killing a 19-year-old male student and injuring two 18-year-old female students.

On Tuesday, Lewis & Clark President Robin Holmes-Sullivan said the two female students were recovering in the hospital.

None of the students’ names have been released as their families have requested privacy. It is not clear yet if any of the students’ families might take legal action against the college.

Shannon Ragonesi is on the board of directors at Keating, Bucklin & McCormack — a law firm in Washington. Although Ragonesi does not know the details of the Lewis & Clark incident, she is familiar with cases regarding potential wrongful death and personal injury in educational settings.

“The school generally owes a duty to use reasonable care to keep students safe from reasonably foreseeable dangers,” Ragonesi said.

According to Ragonesi, those “reasonably foreseeable dangers” really depend on the individual incidents.

“Was there a condition on the property that was open and apparent and dangerous? Did the school have notice of a dangerous condition? Or should the school have known based on standard practice?” Ragonesi said.

Ragonesi said in wrongful death and personal injury cases, juries also pay attention to the age of the injured person and whether the risks of their actions were obvious to them.

“Really, it’s dependent on the facts and who the individuals involved are,” she said.

Following Monday night’s incident, some students have cited safety concerns on the private college’s campus.

“One of the things that’s at least on my mind, and I think on other students’ minds, is the stability of our campus in general,” Venus Edlin, a Lewis & Clark student and editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper, told OPB Tuesday.

Lewis & Clark has not responded to questions related to building and structural safety since the incident.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Meerah Powell