For university leadership, high-risk drinking on college campuses has implications beyond student well-being—particularly when it comes to financial costs and legal liability.
As fall semester draws to a close, college and university personnel continue to grapple with the fallout from high-risk drinking. From assaults to alcohol poisoning to drunk driving, heavy drinking exposes students to a host of dangers. Universities strive to reduce high-risk drinking for the sake of student well-being, but high-risk drinking has other implications for university leadership—particularly when it comes to financial costs and legal liability.
Commonly referred to as binge drinking, high-risk drinking occurs when women consume four or more drinks and men consume five or more drinks on a single occasion. Binge drinking is a persistent problem on college campuses: The Department of Education identifies alcohol abuse as one of the most significant health risks to students, and in 2014, nearly 66% of college students reported having five or more drinks in a row sometime in the last month.
Alcohol is linked to violence and injuries on campus, including fights, sexual assault, hazing, slips and falls, and even fatalities. High-risk drinking also takes a financial toll by resulting in student attrition, emergency services, disciplinary actions, counseling services and property damage. One study of college insurance claims found that losses were 25% higher if a claim involved alcohol.
Consequently, higher-education administrators and insurance agents should understand liability when it comes to students’ high-risk drinking. While they vary by state, dram shop rules hold an alcohol vendor liable for injury or damage caused by an intoxicated person to whom they have served alcohol. Similarly, social host liability laws hold individuals liable for injury or damage caused by someone they have overserved. Nearly all dram shop and social host laws impose liability on those who serve alcohol to minors. While few colleges operate as an alcohol vendor, social host liability often comes into play during events organized by institution-sponsored groups, such as Greek organizations.
Over the past few decades, media and legal attention to alcohol issues has increased. Laws have broadened in the wake of more liberal court rulings and legislative action in response to known problems, which makes it important to review colleges’ insurance policies. Some general liability policies for educational institutions exclude alcohol-related liability. Others impose no limitations on alcohol coverage, but applications include underwriting questions about alcohol sales on campus and institutional drug and alcohol policies.
Agents and brokers should discuss liquor compliance issues with college and university insureds. Colleges are required to annually report alcohol-related incidents through the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, which also requires colleges to include descriptions of alcohol policies, alcohol abuse prevention programs, statistics on arrests, and disciplinary action around liquor law violations. The Drug Free Schools and Communities Act also contains biennial reporting review and reporting requirements around college alcohol policies.
Universities must make alcohol abuse prevention an institutional priority, which they can achieve in the form of risk management programs. Some college risk managers have conducted education programs for resident assistants who oversee dorm life, providing yearly training and ongoing check-ins throughout the school year. Prevention efforts are also critical, such as plans for reducing alcohol consumption at school events.
For smaller colleges with fewer financial resources, mitigating the occurrence and effects of high-risk drinking can be a challenge. Such a task may be relegated to one student affairs staff member, who has plenty of other high-priority job responsibilities. Agents can serve as a valuable resource to those colleges by connecting them with the risk management resources available from their insurer, including alcohol-related checklists, risk research reports and online learning programs for students and staff.
High-risk drinking among college students is a problem with no easy solutions. Mitigating it requires a coordinated effort from all college leadership, and insurance and risk management are a crucial part of that approach.
Robb Jones, senior vice president and general counsel for claims management at United Educators, heads the team of 26 lawyers and 29 other professionals responsible for liability claims management for nearly 1,300 colleges, universities and K-12 schools. He has more than 35 years of experience serving the education community.