This case recently turned up in the New York Law Journal; nineteen-year-old Julie Katz, a student at the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism in New York, won the right to sue her synagogue for a knee injury which worsened after a study abroad trip to Yerucham, Israel.

Katz testified that the synagogue had said it would assist her with medical care. This was confirmed by the program director. She also testified that the program refused to help her get the physical therapy she needed. This was neither confirmed nor denied. What was established was that the synagogue had duty of care over Katz, and was therefore responsible for keeping her safe and healthy.

Dictionary.law.com defines “duty of care” as “a requirement that a person act toward others and the public with the watchfulness, attention, caution and prudence that a reasonable person in the circumstances would use.” If an individual or organization with duty of care acts in a way that doesn’t meet that standard, those actions may be considered negligent. Any damages incurred as a result could be claimed in a negligence lawsuit.

That’s exactly what Katz was trying to do, and the panel ended up ruling in her favor. It was decided, 3-2, that the synagogue had duty of care for her. Knowing she had a knee injury and agreeing to provide medical care through the trip counselors, it was the synagogue’s responsibility to make sure Katz had access to the resources she needed to keep the injury from getting worse.

The defense and the justices on the panel who opposed the suit argued that if anyone should have been more careful with Katz’s knee injury, it was Katz herself.

[The] plaintiff, an adult, had her own insurance card and cell phone and informed her parents of the accident and the alleged failure of defendant to grant her request for physical therapy,” Justice Richard Andrias wrote. “She also had family in Jerusalem, and, as the majority concedes, may not have been as helpless as she makes herself out to be.”

The question of whether or not Katz was “helpless” enough to qualify for a lawsuit raises some important questions about student safety abroad. It’s arguable by many student tourism programs that students who go abroad – though not all – are in college, over 18 and legal adults. Prevailing wisdom discerns, ‘Adults should know their limits. They should take the time to inform themselves of risks. They should be the ones to keep themselves from getting hurt or sick and they should be the ones who are accountable if they don’t.’

Lumping college kids in with the millions of experienced adults traveling for business and pleasure is a mistake. A lot of prefrontal lobe brain growth and personal growth takes place in the timespan between a person’s teens and early 20s, which is when most students will go abroad. This is the prevailing reason these young ‘adults’ are not qualified to rent a car, or sign up for a cruise on their own.

Teenagers in particular are at six times the risk of accident or injury after ages 14 than when they were were 10-14 years old. In a lot of ways, students ages 16-24 or 26 are a more vulnerable population than others who are even a few years older.

This doesn’t just go for physical health needs. One blog focusing on duty of care found that students going abroad are 23 times more likely to need repatriation assistance due to a mental health issues than adults who go abroad on business.

ClearCause is dedicated to holding study abroad programs responsible for their student charges. Some of these travelers aren’t old enough to vote. Some aren’t even old enough to drive. Katz, at 19 years old, wasn’t old enough to drink, rent a car in Israel or book herself on a cruise. However, according to the defendant, she was old enough to get her own physical therapy in a foreign country with an active injury.
Go to the ClearCause advocacy page to find out how you can help advocate for more accountability to protect students on programs abroad. Every youth should return with rewarding experiences in an industry held to the highest standards.