Schools can be held liable for student suicides in certain circumstances, Massachusetts' highest court said Monday in a ruling that also cleared the Massachusetts Institute of Technology of responsibility for the death of a graduate student who killed himself on campus in 2009.
The Supreme Judicial Court said MIT cannot be blamed for the death of 25-year-old Han Nguyen, who jumped from the top of a campus building minutes after a professor confronted him about an offensive email.
But it found that schools can be liable if they fail to act after they become aware that a student has attempted suicide while enrolled, or shortly before entering, or learn that the student had threatened to commit suicide.
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Gary Pavela, a consultant on law and policy issues in higher education, said he's unaware of another state appellate court that has explicitly found that universities have a duty to prevent suicide in limited cases and defines those circumstances.
"This will be very newsworthy to colleges around the country," said Pavela, who has written a book about the legal questions surrounding student suicides.
The court noted that Nguyen never told anyone at MIT that he planned to kill himself or tried to kill himself while enrolled at the school. Furthermore, he was living off campus instead of a dormitory under "daily observation," the court said.
But the judges said schools must take "reasonable measures' to help students they know have attempted suicide while at the school or have threatened to kill themselves. That would include initiating a suicide prevention protocol, getting the student in the care of a medical professional, or contacting police, fire or emergency medical personnel.
"It requires the school to really have a lot of information that the suicide is likely and the reasonable measures that the school needs to take are not extremely onerous," said Naomi Shatz, an attorney who's not involved in the case.
Jeffrey Beeler, an attorney for Nguyen's estate, said they were disappointed the court sided with MIT, but believe its ruling will nonetheless "save student lives going forward."
An MIT spokeswoman didn't immediately respond to an email Monday.
A group of 18 colleges and universities - including Harvard University and Boston College - told the court that holding MIT responsible for Nguyen's death would have far-reaching consequences by causing officials with no medical expertise to overreact to concerns out of fear of liability.
Nguyen's professors shared concerns about his mental health in the months leading up to his death, and one encouraged his colleagues to pass him or they might have "blood on their hands."
In a telephone call 11 minutes before he killed himself, a professor "read him the riot act" over an email Nguyen sent to another MIT official that they believed was inappropriate, court records said.
The family said that the school should have known that "mishandling this fragile student" would result in his suicide.
But MIT said the school wasn't aware of the severity of his condition, noting that he was treated by outside professionals and refused on-campus resources. None of the professionals who treated Nguyen while he was at MIT believed he was an imminent risk of killing himself, the school said.