Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against USC Faces Hurdles
The lawsuit has the potential to be troublesome for the South Los Angeles university.
In the complaint, the parents of Ying and Ming say the university failed to mention it was in a high crime area and falsely promoted itself as “among the safest of U.S. universities and colleges” that provides “24 hour law enforcement services on the University Park and Health Science campuses, as well as surrounding neighborhoods.”
Another part of the suit alleges that USC knew it was being misleading and did so in order to “induce” international students into coming to the university. Had the school properly represented itself, the suit states, Ying and Ming might not have attended USC.
The primary claims can be broken down into two charges: negligence leading to the deaths of the students, and misrepresentation, since information about the university overseas is only available through USC’s website.
“First thing is, they have to prove that there was a material misrepresentation,” Nockleby said. “Now that means, it has to be very important in that it’s the kind of misrepresentation that would cause somebody to change their behavior.”
In this case, the plaintiffs would have to demonstrate that had USC provided clearer information regarding safety, Ying and Ming, as a direct result, would not have come to the States for school.
“One of the problems with this particular approach is that the sort of requirements are very specific," Nockleby said, "and [proving] that’s what triggered their coming to this country and going to USC—that’s going to be hard to show.”
Furthermore, much of the negligence charge is based on whether or not the parents can prove without a doubt that the deaths could have been avoided. Nockleby said it doesn’t seem USC can be held accountable for what happened nearly a mile off-campus.
“The fact that the university may or may not have patrolled is not necessarily a preventive measure because they’re not asking for personal security, that the university guards walk them to and from their apartments,” Nockleby said. “They’re suggesting [the school] should have provided regular patrols and that would have been a deterrent. Now if that’s true, they have to show that had the university provided these patrols, this very crime would have been prevented. That’s the most difficult thing to establish.”
Nockleby said the most important part of the lawsuit lies in its misrepresentation claim. That could be a pivotal issue because it involves investigating the university’s motivation behind the material it provides to international students in the recruitment process.
“I think that’s why this is an important case,” Nockleby said. “Let’s get to the bottom line here: It’s an open secret among universities that part of the reason they establish these graduate programs for foreign students is that they’re money-makers for the university. Let’s be honest about that. That’s a critical factor here. The truth is that all of these institutions are constantly looking for ways it can support itself.”
Nockleby said in that regard, the case could be set a precedent in forcing schools to be more considerate of cultural differences when representing themselves overseas to various cultures.
As for USC, the school's attorney Debra Wong Yang said in a statement to The Los Angeles Times that the university has "deep sympathy" for the families and has even offered financial assistance to them, but that they refused under the guidance of their attorney, and instead filed the suit.
According to Nockleby, USC may try to play this one quietly.
“What the university will do," he said, "is they will try to get the case dismissed early."