University Owes a Limited Duty to Prevent Student’s Suicide in Certain Circumstances

Category: Private Education Matters
Date: Jun 29, 2018 11:31 AM

Han Duy Nguyen was a graduate student at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.  He lived off campus.  In May 2007, after his first academic year at MIT, he contacted the Ph.D. program coordinator regarding his test-taking problems.  He was referred to the student disability services coordinator, but he did not want to use that resource because he said his problem was not disability-related.  He was referred to the mental health counseling services but did not agree that he needed such services.

After this referral, Nguyen admitted to the counselor that he previously suffered from depression and had attempted suicide twice before he was ever enrolled at MIT.  But he said he was not currently experiencing suicidal ideation.  Instead, Nguyen sought treatment outside of MIT’s services, at Massachusetts General Hospital.  Nguyen did inform David Randall, a dean in the student support office, that he had a history of depression and had seen several therapists. Randall encouraged Nguyen to visit MIT mental health services but Nguyen was resistant. Nguyen said his mental health issues were separate from his academic problems.  Randall and other administrators agreed they should keep in touch about any issues with NguyeNguyen had a history with many mental health professionals over the years. In March 2009, he started seeing a new doctor, who did not believe that Nguyen was at risk of imminent self-harm.  He saw this doctor through May 28, 2009, which ended up being five days before his death. 

Nguyen’s academic problems at MIT were serious.  He struggled greatly, but told his academic advisors at MIT only that he suffered from insomnia, and not the full history of his mental health issues and suicide attempts.  Nguyen requested extensions on exams, and eventually, his faculty advisors felt the best course of action would be for him to pursue a master’s degree instead of a Ph.D.  Nguyen remained insistent that he wanted to pursue the higher degree.

On June 2, 2009, Nguyen had a dispute via email with the project advisor at the lab he was working in as a summer assistant.  He arrived at the lab at 9:00 a.m. and appeared to be acting normal.  At 10:51 a.m., Nguyen received a phone call from Professor Birger Wenerfelt, who told Nguyen he was not good at navigating the academic world and should not pursue a Ph.D.  The call ended nine minutes later and Nguyen walked to the roof and jumped to his death. 

Nguyen’s parents sued MIT, alleging the school owed Nguyen a duty of reasonable care and that they breached this duty.  There is no general duty to prevent another person from committing suicide.  But, in some relationships, special affirmative duties arise due to the nature of the relationship.  Here the court had to assess the nature of the university-student relationship to determine if it imposes any duties regarding suicide prevention. 

The court noted that while universities had some control over student life, they certainly did not control every aspect, especially for graduate students like Nguyen who were in their twenties and living off campus.  Universities cannot control students’ personal mental health decisions.  Ultimately, the court concluded that a university does have a special relationship with students and a corresponding duty to take reasonable measures to prevent suicide, but only in certain circumstances.  Where a university has actual knowledge of a student’s suicide attempt that occurred while enrolled at the university or recently before matriculating, or of a student’s stated plans to commit suicide, then the university must take reasonable measures to protect the student from self-harm.  

The court emphasized that this duty is quite limited.  Mere knowledge of suicidal ideation is not enough to trigger the duty.  Furthermore, non-clinicians are not expected to discern suicidal tendencies.  The duty instead hinges on foreseeability.  Reasonable measures will include initiating a suicide prevention policy if such a policy exists.  If not, the employee must contact the appropriate officials at the university to assist with obtaining the proper medical care for the student.  If the student refuses the care, the officials should notify the student’s emergency contact.  This duty is also limited by time.  If professionals declare the student is no longer a risk, then no further care is required.

This duty balances the privacy and autonomy of adult students and also recognizes that non-clinicians cannot be expected to probe suicidal tendencies that are not expressly evident.  In this case, the court found there was no duty.  Nguyen was a 25-year-old student living off campus.  He did not communicate any plans for suicide or suicidal ideation to university officials.  MIT officials had properly advised Nguyen to seek mental health services, but that was two years before his suicide.   

Nguyen’s father also argued that MIT had adopted a voluntary assumption of a duty of care by offering mental health services.  The court disagreed, as there was no evidence that Nguyen ever relied on MIT’s services, and no evidence that offering these services increased Nguyen’s risk of suicide.   

The only claim that survived summary judgment was regarding whether Nguyen was a student or employee at the time of his suicide, as he was working as a lab assistant for the summer.  MIT argued he was an employee and therefore any tort claims are actually covered under the Worker’s Compensation system.  Nguyen’s parents argued he was still a student.  Whether the June 2, 2009 phone call was school or work related was also a matter better left to a fact finder.

Dzung Duy Nguyen v. MIT (2018) –N.E.3d--, 2018 WL 2090610.

Note:

An interesting point mentioned at the end of the case was that the only issue to survive summary judgment related to the question of whether Nguyen was technically a student or an employee of MIT at the time of his suicide.  He was working in a research lab during the summer but enrolled as a graduate student.  His status is critical because it governs whether the Worker’s Compensation system is implicated as the sole means of recovery for the family.  Graduate students are considered students in some aspects, but employees in others, as seen in many recent attempts by graduate students to unionize at colleges and universities across the country. 

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