Last week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that MIT was not responsible for the suicide of a graduate school student on its campus – but it also held that under certain circumstances, universities do have a duty to protect students from suicide.
In 2009, Han Duy Nguyen, a 25-year-old graduate student at the Sloan School of Management, jumped to his death shortly after being rebuked by an MIT professor for rude behavior. His father then sued MIT, two professors and a dean, alleging that their negligence had caused Nguyen’s death.
Nguyen had a history of mental health issues and he had attempted suicide twice in his undergraduate years. He had seen a series of private psychiatrists and therapists. While at MIT, however, Nguyen had refused to let MIT’s mental health professionals participate in his care. Nguyen never communicated to any MIT employee that he had plans to commit suicide. He was an adult living off campus. He repeatedly made clear that he wanted to keep his mental health issues separate from his academic problems. For these reasons, among others, the Court found that MIT did not have a duty to prevent Nguyen’s suicide.
A Significant New Precedent for the University-Student Relationship
Beyond this finding, the ruling has great significance. For the first time, the Court concluded that "a university has a special relationship with a student and a corresponding duty to take reasonable measures to prevent his or her suicide" under certain circumstances.
If a university knows of a student’s recent suicide attempt, or stated intention to commit suicide, it must take measures to protect the student from self-harm. In these cases, the Court said, suicide is foreseeable even to those without medical training.
The SJC’s ruling is the first in Massachusetts to outline universities’ legal duties to prevent students from suicide. We commend the Court for addressing the tragic issue of suicide on college campuses in the laws of the state.
Around 1,100 university students die by suicide every year, and many more report struggling with suicidal thoughts. The SJC has set an important precedent in recognizing that universities have a legal responsibility to protect their students.
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