Moments after being reprimanded by one of his professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 25-year old Han Nguyen committed suicide. Nguyen had been struggling with depression, according to his attorney, but the prestigious university failed to get him the treatment he required. Could MIT be liable for a student’s suicide?
Universities across the nation are watching this legal battle unfold, with baited breath. A decision against MIT would likely cause alarm in institutions of higher education. Critics believe that such a decision would put an unfair burden on employees who are not trained to detect potentially-suicidal students. But Nguyen’s family claims that officials at the university knew of his suicide risk and did nothing to help. According to court records, a professor told colleagues to pass Han or they might end up with “blood on their hands,” and he was “read the riot act” moments before committing suicide for an allegedly-inappropriate email he had sent.
According to MIT, the school was unaware of the severity of Nguyen’s condition because he was receiving treatment by outside professionals. In fact, he had refused on-campus treatment.
“Mr. Nguyen’s suicide was a tragedy. That does not warrant a legal conclusion that MIT or any individual associated with MIT had a legal duty to prevent it”
We will continue to monitor this case and have blog updates once the court rule on this important issue.
Could a Decision Against MIT Have Unintended Consequences?
Harvard and Boston College, along with 16 other colleges and universities, have voiced concerns that a decision in favor of Nguyen’s family could have harmful consequences. Fearing liability, untrained professors and other staff might overreact to situations concerning students’ safety, resulting in a reluctance among students to report their problems. Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a psychiatrist at Columbia University, thinks their concerns are valid.
“To the extent that you heighten every resident assistant’s sensitivity to the risk of suicidality, with the threat of liability hanging over them, they are far more likely to over predict, over intervene, see it where it’s not,” said Appelbaum.
Did MIT Fulfill its Duty to Provide Reasonable Care?
But supporters of Nguyen’s family think these concerns are invalid. According to the family’s attorney, they only wish to affirm that the duty to provide a reasonable level of care ““extends to the ivory tower as it does every other civilized corner of the Commonwealth.”
In 2005, a MA judge ruled that an MIT dean and housemaster were not responsible for the death of a student who set fire to herself on campus. However, Elizabeth Shin’s case was eventually settled for an undisclosed amount. A Boston injury lawyer can help you recover damages if you’ve been injured due to another’s negligence.
MIT has refused to respond to questions about the Nguyen case, but said in a statement that it “remains committed to the well-being of its students, offering a robust network of support resources, including comprehensive mental health services.” Continue reading