MIT not responsible for student’s suicide, Massachusetts Supreme Court rules

Court sets circumstances for when universities can be held responsible, however

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Monday that MIT, as well as two professors and an S3 dean, will not be held liable for the 2009 suicide of PhD student Han Nguyen. The decision stated that universities have a special relationship with the student and thus a special duty regarding suicide prevention, but the actions of MIT and of the individuals involved in this case did not fall within the realm of this duty.

The case, brought against MIT in 2011 by Nguyen’s father, made its way to the state’s highest court, which heard it last September.

Nguyen sought treatment for his mental health at hospitals outside of MIT, but did not engage with MIT mental health officials other than a few visits to MIT Medical and S3, which he found unsatisfactory. The professors involved in the case, Drazen Prelec and Birger Wernerfelt, understood that Nguyen was struggling with anxiety and health issues in the time leading up to his death.

The court found that because “Nguyen never communicated by words or actions to any MIT employee that he had stated plans or intentions to commit suicide,” the MIT employees involved in the case had no legal duty to prevent his death. Nguyen had indicated to defendant S3 Senior Associate Dean David Randall that he would “like to keep the fact of my depression separate from my academic problems,” and revoked MIT’s permission to contact the outside professionals he was seeing.

Although the court exculpated the defendants in the specific case, it made note of the circumstances under which it would consider a university responsible for the suicide of one of its students. For example, it stated that universities must take “reasonable measures … to protect the student from self-harm” if the student has recently attempted suicide or expressed suicidal intentions to the university’s knowledge.

However, the decision noted that this does not constitute “a generalized duty to prevent suicide,” and that employees who are not trained clinicians, like professors, are not expected to recognize suicidal tendencies. Reliance of the student on the university for basic needs is also an important factor — Nguyen, in this case, was 25 years old and lived in an off campus apartment, so he did not meet this standard.