Are Schools, Colleges, and Universities Liable for Student Suicides?

Suicide is a leading cause of death among American college and university students. Each year, over 1,000 students commit suicide on college and university campuses. 1 out of 12 undergrad students have admitted to suicidal ideation. Multiple factors can contribute to the risk of suicide. These factors include behavioral health issues such as depressive disorders, individual characteristics like loneliness, and adverse or stressful life situations.

Thankfully, there are real measures we can take toward preventing suicide. Suicide often isn’t the product of an individual’s rational decision-making process. Suicidal behavior can manifest as a symptom of mental disease.

Given that suicidal is a preventable harm, it begs the question: are schools liable for failing to prevent a student’s suicide? This blog discusses the legal basis for holding schools liable for student suicides.

Dzung Duy Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This issue was addressed by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts last year, in Dzung Duy Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 479 Mass. 436 ( 2018). In the Nguyen case, the court was tasked with reviewing legal issues in an underlying wrongful death action against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) brought by the plaintiff, Dzung Duy Nguyen, on behalf of his son, Han Duy Nguyen.

In the underlying action, the plaintiff alleged that MIT was negligent in failing to prevent his son’s suicide. To establish liability for negligence, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant had a legal duty to take reasonable steps toward preventing foreseeable harms and that the defendant breached this duty, causing injury to the plaintiff.

The Special Relationship Between Schools and Students

The Massachusetts Supreme Court recognized that certain duties could arise from special relationships between the injured party and the defendant, such as between schools and their students.

Schools that take custody of younger children as students act “in loco parentis” or “in place of a parent.” Schools that operate in loco parentis assume the duties and responsibilities of a parent. However, the court noted that “universities are not responsible for monitoring and controlling all aspects of their students’ lives” unlike primary schools and high schools.[i] As a result, colleges and universities no longer operate in loco parentis.

Therefore, the Nguyen court concluded that the relationship between a university and its students is such that a duty exists to take reasonable steps in preventing student suicides.[ii] The court elaborated that “[w]here a university has actual knowledge of a student’s suicide attempt that occurred while enrolled at the university or recently before matriculation, or of a 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.”[iii]

To illuminate the court’s holding in Nguyen, Decof, Barry, Mega & Quinn, P.C. attorney, Mark Brice, analogized the situation in a radio news program with a student dying from pneumonia in a university dorm room.

If a university or college was aware of the fact that a student was dying from pneumonia in a campus dorm but lets them die, there’s “no question” that the school would be liable for the student’s death. “If you think about suicide as the same manner as that, you can understand why the court ruled the way they did” Mr. Brice pointed out on the radio news program, “The News with Gene Valicenti.”

However, a university’s liability does not extend to suicides it knows nothing about. “You can’t make [universities] responsible for every suicide, simply because there was a suicide on campus,” added Mr. Brice. “But…where they have clear knowledge that things are going south, [universities] have to take reasonable measures.”

Compassionate Advocacy with Our Dedicated Rhode Island Wrongful Death Attorney

If one of your loved ones was fatally injury due to the negligent or wrongful acts of another, you should call an experienced Rhode Island wrongful death attorney. At Decof, Barry, Mega & Quinn, P.C. we have dedicated over 40 years to representing injured victims in various matters, including wrongful death cases. We provide you with personalized legal representation, examining every detail of your case, and weaving together all the evidence in a way that effectively tells people about the real human story behind your claim. Although monetary damages cannot make up for the loss of your loved one’s life, a wrongful death damages award can help you shoulder the financial burden of dealing with their passing.

For a free consultation about how Decof, Barry, Mega & Quinn, P.C. can help you, call us at (401) 200-4059 or contact us online today.

[i] Nguyen v. MIT, 479 Mass. at 451 (2018).

[ii] Id. at 453.

[iii] Id.

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