Court wrestles with whether school can be blamed in suicide
BOSTON (AP) — The Massachusetts Institute of Technology should be held responsible for the death of a graduate student who killed himself on campus in 2009 because officials knew he was a suicide risk and didn’t help him, an attorney for the man’s father told the state’s highest court Tuesday.
Attorney Jeffrey Beeler is asking the Supreme Judicial Court to revive a lawsuit filed against MIT by the father of 25-year-old graduate student Han Nguyen. Beeler said Nguyen’s suicide could have been prevented if the school had connected him to the services he needed.
“Call in the supports that are there — that are paid to be there — and this young man is alive,” Beeler told the court.
At issue in the case is whether colleges and universities have a legal duty to provide “reasonable care” to prevent student suicides. If Massachusetts’ high court sides with Nguyen’s family, it would be the first state supreme court to find higher education institutions have such a duty, MIT’s lawyers say.
The case has alarmed colleges and universities, which say untrained employees can’t reasonably be expected to make judgments about students’ mental health.
An attorney for MIT told the justices that the school tried to provide Nguyen services, but he didn’t want them. Nguyen, who was being treated by outside professionals, told the school that he wanted to keep his mental health issues separate from his academic life.
“Nguyen’s estate is effectively asking for a duty to be imposed that is contrary to what Mr. Nguyen wanted when he was alive... which is to just be treated like everyone else,” Attorney Kevin Martin said.
Nguyen’s professors shared concerns about his mental health in the months leading up to his death, and one of them encouraged his colleagues to pass him or they might have “blood on their hands.” Right before he jumped from a building to his death, a professor “read him the riot act” over an email Nguyen sent to another MIT official that they believed was inappropriate, according to court records.
But Justice Scott Kafker noted that none of the professionals who had been treating Nguyen during his time at MIT thought he was an imminent risk of suicide. And Chief Justice Ralph Gants questioned whether imposing that liability on schools for suicides could open the door to similar lawsuits against others, like employers and parents.
“Would parents be sued if they fail to exercise reasonable care to prevent a suicide?” Gants asked.
The court is expected to issue a ruling in the coming months.