Massachusetts’ highest appellate court ruled recently that in certain circumstances a special relationship, and a corresponding duty to take reasonable measures to prevent suicide, may be created between a university and a student. However, the court decided that Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had no such duty on the particular facts before it.
A father of a student brought a wrongful death case against MIT alleging that the university was negligent in not acting to prevent his son’s suicide. Three named defendants in the case, in addition to the university, were the student’s graduate research advisor, a faculty head of the graduate program and an assistant dean for student support services. MIT had actually referred the student for mental health counseling, but it related to his expressed difficulties with sleeping and studying and, by the students’ own admission, had nothing to do with mental health. The student did have a history of depression, which he disclosed to MIT counseling, but he also disclosed that he was treating with an outside psychiatrist, and he denied having any suicidal thoughts. Even his outside psychiatrist did not identify an imminent risk of suicide. In an appointment just five days before his death, the student did not say anything that sounded imminently suicidal or hopeless.
The student was due to take a research assistant position for the summer, and after a phone conversation with the project coordinator, the student sent a somewhat testy email to the coordinator. The head of the graduate program was asked to follow up with the student, which he did by phone, and he reported back that he had “read the student the riot act” about the tone of his email. Shortly after this phone conversation, the student went to the roof of a university laboratory building and jumped to his death.
Generally, there is no duty under the law to prevent another from committing suicide, as one has no duty to act or protect somebody from a condition that that he or she has not created. Yet, a special relationship, such as a custodial relationship, may give rise to a duty to protect against an unreasonable risk of harm. Colleges do not have a general duty of care to all students in all aspects of their collegial lives. Yet, college students are young adults, not young children, and graduate students are considered adults in all respects of the law. In determining whether a duty arises, the court will look at a number of factors, foremost among those being whether a defendant reasonably could foresee that he or she would be expected to take affirmative action to protect the plaintiff and could anticipate harm to the plaintiff from the failure to do so.
Considering these general principles, the court ruled that a university has a special relationship with a student and corresponding duty to take reasonable measures to prevent his or her suicide only in limited circumstances. “Where a university has actual knowledge of the student’s suicide attempt that occurred while enrolled at the university or recently before matriculation, or of the student’s stated plans or intentions to commit suicide, the university has a duty to take reasonable measures under the circumstances to protect the student from self-harm…. The duty is not triggered merely by a university’s knowledge of a student’s suicidal ideation without any stated plans or intentions to act on such thoughts.” Reasonable measures by a university to satisfy a triggered duty would include initiating its suicide prevention protocol or contacting the appropriate officials at the university empowered to assist the student in obtaining clinical care from medical professionals.
The student in the case at hand was a graduate living off campus. He had never communicated by any words or actions to any MIT employee that he had stated plans or intentions to commit suicide. The court ruled that under these circumstances no duty of care was created to take action to prevent the student suicide.
The case is Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, May 7, 2018.