The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled earlier this week that colleges and universities can, under some circumstances, be held liable for the suicides of their students. While the plaintiffs who brought the suit – the parents of the student who committed suicide – ultimately did not prevail in this particular suit, they paved the way open for future liability on the part of schools, under certain conditions. While these courageous parents lost their case, this ruling is still a win for future such families, because a legal door has been opened now, which was never open before.
The case name is Nguyen vs. MIT, brought by the parents of Han Duy Nguyen. As an undergraduate at Stanford, Nguyen twice tried to kill himself. When he enrolled at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, he was visibly in distress, so much so that his own academic adviser believed he was extremely vulnerable. School officials offered him mental health counseling, but took no other special measures to assure his safety despite his extremely depressed state of mental health. On June 2, 2009, Nguyen, 25 years old, went to the sixth floor of a campus building and jumped to his death. Nguyen’s parents believed that MIT personnel knew about Nguyen’s vulnerable state, but failed to do enough to help him. They brought suit against the school and fought a valiant, seven-year effort to hold MIT liable for failure to act more responsibly surrounding Nguyen’s well-documented fight with depression. The legal theory of their case singed on the concept of “foreseeability,”which is a central element of tort law (generally speaking, the law of negligence.)
The SJC’s decision was split: The majority ruled that – in this particular case – MIT should not be held liable for Nguyen’s death, due to their conclusion that his suicide was not “foreseeable.” However, they simultaneously ruled – for the first time – that colleges and universities do owe a legal duty of care to their students’ mental health – and that schools can be held liable for student suicides, if that suicide was reasonably foreseeable, and if the student was not provided with proper mental health assistance and support. That is a major new development in Massachusetts tort law. This decision has created new law within a major problem area in American society: College and university student suicides.
This problem is far bigger than the vast majority of people know – principally because schools do all that they can to keep this problem quiet and out of the media. Just how serious is this problem? At MIT alone, approximately one student per year commits suicide. Also, in the event that you might think MIT to be the highbrow, humanitarian institution of higher thought that it presents itself to be, you might want to know that MIT fought this case at every turn and in every way imaginable, including blaming young Nguyen’s parents for his death. Why? Because despite what the hallowed halls of academia might want people to think, this is Big Business: So much so that many colleges joined with MIT to file supporting briefs, urging the court to rule against the dead boy’s parents. These schools included Amherst College, Bentley University, Berklee College of Music, Boston College, Boston University, Brandeis University, College of the Holy Cross, Emerson College, Endicott College, Harvard University, Northeastern University, Simmons College, Smith College, Stonehill College, Suffolk University, Tufts University, Williams College, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
MIT may have won this particular battle, but they – and the schools who supported them in this case – have lost the war. Because in their filings with the SJC, MIT asked the Court declare that there was no legal duty to protect against the very real and very foreseeable risk that its students would commit suicide if not provided with proper support. The court ruled for future cases that if risk was foreseeable on the part of the school, that does create a legal duty and the school can be held liable. That principle has never been legally declared in Massachusetts before.
This ruling will now reverberate across the legal departments of colleges and universities throughout the country, and as a result this ruling will save future lives. While this particular case was not a win for these particular parents, as a Massachusetts negligence attorney, I’m proud of them for bringing it – because doing something like this isn’t easy. And I’m proud of the plaintiffs’ lawyers that fought this case. As a colleague in my bar association, the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys noted, because of the hard work done in this case, some family in the future will receive a telephone call that their child is in trouble and needs help. Hopefully, no family will receive another type of call: That their child, who they sent off to college, will be coming home in a coffin.