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Colleges don't have to refund tuition because COVID moved classes online, Texas Supreme Court rules

Students play football on the lawn in front of Dallas Hall on Monday, March 6, 2023, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Yfat Yossifor
Students play football on the lawn in front of Dallas Hall on Monday, March 6, 2023, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Texas universities aren’t liable for the experiences students lost when college campuses shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.

Luke Hogan, a former Southern Methodist University graduate student and football player from Keller who was finishing his final semester in 2020, sued the school in state and then federal court. He alleged SMU stripped him and other students of an in-person classroom experience — for which he paid about $25,000 in tuition and $3,180 in fees that semester — when the school moved classes online as the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic.

Hogan argued it’s unconstitutional for a 2021 state law protecting public and private schools from liability during the pandemic to retroactively apply to his case.

Upon a request from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to weigh in, the state’s highest court sided with SMU.

“Hogan cites no precedent in which a student in his position has obtained monetary damages from a school in the event of the campus’s unexpected closure for any reason — much less its forced closure at the hand of the government,” the opinion reads.

Hogan's lawyers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Republican-backed Pandemic Liability Protection Act also applies to businesses and health care providers. The Legislature outlined the law as being necessary specifically because of the toll the pandemic took on physicians and health care workers.

As of 2021, 28 other states have passed similar laws. That legislation has failed in at least one state: in September, Arizona’s state appeals court struck down a pandemic liability protection law because it violated their state’s constitutional right for anyone to pursue damages for injuries.

The Fifth Circuit is weighing the appeal of a similar Texas case filed by two students against Baylor University.

A federal district judge ruled last year the PLPA, “protects compelling public interests through a narrowly tailored shield against only monetary remedies.”

Organizations including the Texas Civil Justice League voiced their support of the bill in Austin. George Christian, TCJE’s senior counsel, said lawmakers felt like everyone just had to take a hit in an act of God situation like this — college students included.

“If they had, you know, been put in a position of having to refund tuition to tens of thousands of students, I think very likely many of them could not have done that,” he said. ”That would have bankrupted them.”

But the former Baylor students disagreed in their brief supporting Hogan.

“The Legislature made no finding that the PLPA was necessary to ensure that its citizens are educated, because it made no finding that lawsuits against educational institutions threatened their ability to continue to function,” they wrote. “And a statute forbidding lawsuits for monetary relief after the fact has at best a remote connection to the public’s health or safety.”

Got a tip? Email Toluwani Osibamowo at tosibamowo@kera.org. You can follow Toluwani on X @tosibamowo.

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Toluwani Osibamowo