College presidents would like a legal "safe harbor" from potential lawsuits filed by students or staff when classes resume at New Jersey campuses in the fall.

During a hearing of the state Senate Higher Education Committee on Tuesday to address the financial challenges caused by the pandemic, Felician University President Anne M. Prisco told the committee it's something many of her colleagues would like to see.

"Is there any safe harbor that can be provided If we bring our students back and follow the appropriate protocols that we will not be held liable if a staff, faculty or student contacted the virus while in our community?" Prisco said.

The hearing was held a day before Rutgers University was hit with a class-action lawsuit filed by an anonymous parent of a student seeking reimbursement of tuition.

The lawsuit in Superior Court of Middlesex County alleges breach of contract, unjust enrichment and conversion for “continuing to reap the financial benefit of millions of dollars from students” after shutting the campus for the pandemic.

The lawsuit says Rutgers continued to charge full semester rates of $942 per credit hour even though online undergraduate classes had been charging $550.

“We understand that universities have been put under unforeseen circumstances and had to act quickly in the face of the pandemic, but we also believe that is no excuse to ignore the rights of students and others paying for access to campus amenities, in-person education and all the other benefits commonly afforded to them in a typical semester,” said Steve Berman, whose firm, Hagens Berman, is representing the Rutgers parents and students who filed similar lawsuits against Boston University, Brown University, Duke University, Emory University, George Washington University, the University of Southern California, Vanderbilt University and Washington University in St. Louis.

During the Senate hearing, Rider University President Gregory Dellomo asked for legal immunity to protect the financial future of colleges and universities.

"There is an increasing legal liability associated with coronavirus and how institutions deal with its impact. For a growing number of class-action lawsuits by parents and students demanding refunds ... to potential privacy issues, etc., we find ourselves seriously affected by events that are out of our control," Dellomo said.

Montclair State University is already facing a lawsuit filed by filmmaking student Colin Keyes, who claims the online learning offered by the school was "subpar," according to a NorthJersey.com report.

Tyler Thompson, a student from Freehold, sued Penn State claiming a breach of contract, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill into law on April 14 that provides civil and criminal immunity to certain health care professionals and health care facilities during public health and states of emergency. The law is retroactive to March 9.

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNJ

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