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Harvard University Faces Lawsuit for Failure to Prevent a Student's Suicide

Posted by Stacey L. Pietrowicz

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This month, a Massachusetts court held that Harvard University can be held liable for failure to prevent a student suicide.  

On September 12, 2015, Luke Tang committed suicide in his dormitory at Harvard University. He had attempted suicide before, in April of that year.  

Harvard learned of his April attempt and sent Luke to McLean Hospital. A week later, Luke was discharged from the hospital and told to have weekly therapy. In May, Harvard required Luke to sign a contract as a condition to continue his classes at the school.  

The contract was prepared by Harvard’s Resident Dean of Freshmen, a licensed social worker and a doctor, all Harvard University employees. The contract outlined the university’s expectation of Luke to attend appointments with his treatment team, actively participate in his treatment, follow recommendations, and comply with being evaluated when requested. However, Luke’s father alleges that Luke did not receive mental health counseling between his hospital discharge in May and his death in September.  

Luke’s father, Wendell Tang, filed suit, saying that Harvard had a duty to prevent his son’s suicide. The school breached this duty when it failed to ensure that Luke was following the terms of the contract.  

As the lawsuit moves forward, the parties will seek to find whether Harvard had a suicide prevention protocol in place, whether or not it was initiated, and whether or not the steps taken by Harvard to prevent Luke’s suicide were reasonable.  

Court finds a school has a duty to its students

Last year, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, for the first time, recognized that “a university has a special relationship with a student and a corresponding duty to take reasonable measures to prevent his or her suicide.” Nguyen v. Massachusetts Inst. of Tech., 479 Mass. 436 (2018).  

In early September 2019, Superior Court Judge Michael D. Ricciuti ruled that Harvard University could be held liable for failure to take reasonable steps to prevent the suicide of Luke Tang.  

Harvard acknowledges that it was aware of Luke’s suicide attempt in April 2015 and that it had a duty to take action. But, Harvard said that it was required to do nothing more than the steps outlined in Nguyen: (1) “initiating the university’s suicide prevention protocol,” (2) “if the school has no such protocol, arranging for clinical care by trained medical professional,” or (3) “if such care is refused, alerting the student’s emergency contact.” Judge Ricciuti disagreed with Harvard’s interpretation of Nguyen.  

Judge Ricciuti stated that “Nguyen, allows universities to satisfy its responsibility to suicidal students by ‘initiating the university’s suicide protocol,’ but inherent in any such response is that the protocol is appropriate. If that were not so, all that a university would have to do to avoid liability under Harvard’s theory is to draft something – anything  – it can label a ‘protocol’ and ‘initiate’ it under appropriate circumstances (whatever initiation may mean), and thereby not only completely eliminate liability, but foreclose any discovery concerning the appropriateness of the protocol or even any questions about whether it was properly followed.”  

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