Han Nguyen, a then-25-year-old graduate student at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, suffered from depression and struggled academically at the world’s most notable colleges, resulting in the deterioration of his mental health. University staff was aware of Han due to his rude behavior and troubles that followed.
Then one day, moments after a professor admonished Nguyen for an offensive e-mail he sent, the young man committed suicide by jumping from the top of a campus building.
On behalf of Nguyen’s parents, the family’s lawyers claimed that MIT was responsible for his death since the university failed to provide proper care for its students, lacked effective support services, and didn’t intervene despite knowing about his troubles. However, MIT countered that Nguyen suffered from mental health issues prior to becoming a college student, and failed to voluntarily seek resources offered at Cambridge.
The case went all the way up to the Massachusetts Supreme Court, where the judges ruled in favor of the university, stating MIT didn’t have specific warning and enough direct evidence to take appropriate action. However, the institution wasn’t completely off the hook.
In the event of a similar situation, MIT would have to take reasonable measures to prevent suicide. Although Nguyen didn’t outwardly express that he wanted to kill himself, there are enough signs to at least question the condition of his mental health.
“The analogy is not really that complicated to think about mental health as an illness and not some sort of character flaw,” explained Attorney Brice on the show. “Now, if you have a student in a dorm room who’s dying from pneumonia and they tell the school they have pneumonia—and I feel terrible and I think I’m going to die—and the school just lets him die in the room, there’s not going to be any question about the school is responsible for that.”
He continued, “If you think of suicide in the same manner as that, you could understand why the court ruled the way they did.”
The court also mentioned the term loco parentis, which is Latin for “in the place of a parent.” This means the legal responsibility of an individual or entity—in this case, MIT—to take on some parental responsibilities and functions since the student is away from their family.
The professors act as an agent of the school. Therefore, if they find out or hear about a student contemplating suicide, they are duty-bound to tell the administration to take some action to prevent suicide. In an informal situation where someone discloses suicidal thoughts to a friend, that person is not liable to take preventative measures to prevent suicide.
“The legal responsibility of the university or the college to take care of its students is different than simply having a friend in the street,” stated Mark Brice “It’s that simple, really.”
According to statistics, there are more than a thousand suicides on a college campus each year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among individual between the ages of 18 and 22.
Unfortunately, universities are not aptly prepared to reduce these figures.
“The 800-pound gorilla is always resources—and its money,” said Attorney Brice. “How much are they going to spend on trying to deal with this issue—time, effort, facilities, etc”
However, with this recent ruling, MIT and other universities are now required to ensure this problem stops.
“When there is a legal obligation to do it, sometimes people take it a lot more seriously.”
Although each state—including Rhode Island—has its own set of negligence laws, the Massachusetts Supreme Court is a highly respected court. This means other courts across the country could look at this and decide this is the right way to approach these types of cases.
For more information, contact our Rhode Island personal injury attorneys at Decof, Barry, Mega & Quinn today.