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Legal Updates

Court Addresses Scope Of Schools' Duty To Prevent Student Suicide

A recent trial court decision sheds new light on the extent to which educational institutions may have an obligation to prevent student suicides and how related claims will be litigated.

On September 9, 2019, in Tang v. Harvard College et al., a Massachusetts Superior Court judge denied Harvard College’s motion to dismiss claims that the University and its employees were negligent in failing to prevent a student suicide. The trial court decision comes on the heels of Nguyen v. MIT, in which the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court established a new standard whereby universities must take “reasonable measures” to prevent student suicides in certain circumstances.

Colleges and universities, as well as independent schools and other institutions that may act in loco parentis for students, are advised to take heed of their evolving legal responsibility to protect students with mental health issues as a critical step in risk management.

Background: The Supreme Judicial Court’s 2018 Decision In Nguyen v. MIT

In general, one does not have a legal duty to prevent another person from committing suicide. In Nguyen v. MIT, Massachusetts’ highest court acknowledged that general rule, but also held that in cases where a “special relationship” exists, there may be an affirmative and limited duty to prevent suicide. Specifically, the court held that universities have a special relationship with their students, and where a university has “actual knowledge” of a suicide attempt that occurred while enrolled at the university or recently before matriculation, or of a student’s stated plans or intention to commit suicide, the university has a duty to take “reasonable measures to protect the student from self-harm.”

The Supreme Judicial Court in Nguyen emphasized that the duty of care owed by a university and non-clinician university employees is “limited,” and is “definitely not a generalized duty to prevent suicide.” The court further stated that where a university or university employee has the requisite knowledge of a student’s suicide attempt or suicidal ideations, the university may satisfy its legal duty of care by (1) initiating the university’s suicide prevention protocol, or (2) if the university has no such protocol, arranging for clinical care by trained medical professionals, or (3) if such care is refused, alerting the student’s emergency contact.

In the case of Nguyen, following a graduate student’s suicide, the student’s father brought a wrongful death suit against the university, two professors, and a dean. After discovery, the Superior Court granted summary judgment in favor of the university, and the father filed a direct appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court. The Supreme Judicial Court agreed with the lower court that MIT and the defendant employees did not owe a duty of care to the graduate student at issue because MIT and the defendant employees did not have actual knowledge of a recent suicide attempt or of any stated plans or intention to commit suicide. The Supreme Judicial Court further noted that universities are “not responsible for monitoring and controlling all aspects of students’ lives,” and the “modern university-student relationship is respectful of student autonomy and privacy.” In other words, the relationship between a university and a young adult student is not akin to a loco parentis relationship (i.e., the relationship between a parent and a child).

Testing Nguyen: September 2019 Ruling In Tang v. Harvard College, et al.

In Tang, the estate of a deceased student brought suit against Harvard, two of its employees, and one former employee, alleging, among other claims, that the defendants were negligent in failing to prevent the student’s suicide. Defendants immediately moved to dismiss the claims, before engaging in any discovery, on the basis that the facts as stated in the complaint failed to state a claim under the standard set forth in Nguyen.

a. Factual Background: A Tragic Suicide

According to the allegations in the complaint, the student attempted suicide in a Harvard dorm in April 2014 of his freshman year. Harvard transferred the student to a hospital for in-patient care, where he remained for seven days. Following his release, the student informed Harvard that he intended to return to China for the summer. Prior to his departure for China, the student entered into a contract with Harvard, which was a condition for his continued enrollment, wherein the student acknowledged that he was expected to seek treatment and follow the recommendations of his treatment team. In September of his sophomore year, shortly after returning from China, the student died by suicide in his dorm room.

b. Harvard’s Argument: The Duty Was Satisfied

Harvard and the defendant individuals argued that the student’s family was unable to establish a claim, even if all allegations were accepted as true, because of the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in Nguyen. Under the Nguyen framework, defendants conceded that the complaint adequately alleged that the Harvard defendants had knowledge of the student’s suicide attempt in his freshman year, and therefore they owed a duty to the student, but the defendants argued that the plaintiff did not adequately allege that they actually breached that duty. In other words, the Harvard defendants argued that they took “reasonable measures to protect the student from self-harm” by putting the student in in-patient hospital care following his suicide attempt and by requiring the student to sign the contract as a condition of continued enrollment. Therefore, Harvard argued that plaintiffs had not satisfactorily alleged a cause of action in their complaint.

c. Judge’s Ruling: More Information Is Needed

In rejecting Harvard’s motion to dismiss, the Superior Court held open the possibility that, even if a university superficially follows the steps required in Nguyen to satisfy the duty of care (i.e., the university initiates a suicide prevention protocol, or, in the absence of a protocol, it arranges for clinical care by trained medical professionals, or, if such care is rejected, it alerts the student’s emergency contact), it is still possible that the university did not “properly discharge the limited duties [Nguyen] imposes.” As an example, the court noted, merely initiating a process labeled “suicide prevention protocol” cannot satisfy the University’s duty of care if the protocol is wholly inappropriate or insufficient. As a result, the plaintiff in Tang was entitled to discovery to develop the factual record about whether the defendants in fact satisfied their limited duty of care to the student.

In addition, the Tang court noted that the complaint alleged a theory of liability not addressed by Nguyen, specifically that Harvard voluntarily assumed a certain duty of care for the student by entering into the contract with the student. Because the Supreme Judicial Court in Nguyen did not foreclose the possibility of liability due to a voluntary assumption of care, this theory was allowed to proceed to discovery.

It is important to note that the Superior Court’s decision in Tang did not make any finding about whether or not Harvard, or any individual defendant, was liable for the student’s suicide. It simply held that, at the initial stages of the case, the plaintiff had stated plausible claims and was entitled to discovery, such as requests for documents, information, and depositions.

Implications For Schools

Nguyen is a fairly recent decision, and it has not yet been applied in many other cases. The recent Tang decision suggests that a court’s assessment of whether a school satisfied the duty described in Nguyen may require factual analysis. Tang suggests that, even where a plaintiff admits in a complaint that the steps required in Nguyen were followed to some extent, a case is unlikely to be dismissed before the parties engage in discovery to further develop the factual record.

Although Tang and Nguyen both involved universities, these decisions are highly relevant to all educational institutions, since schools owe a duty of care to their students, and the extent of that duty will depend on the facts of each case. For instance, to what extent does a school act in loco parentis for students? The duty of care may be greater for a boarding school than a day school, or for a school that offers comprehensive health care services than for a school that has a part-time school nurse.

Given this evolving definition of legal responsibility and the primary goal of protecting students, we recommend that colleges, universities, independent schools, and other educational institutions consider implementing the following steps:

  • Review applicable policies, such as those governing medical leaves, counseling services, and privacy issues.
  • Update health forms to include appropriately tailored questions about suicide risk.
  • Implement an authorization form that provides school counselors with flexibility to share information with other school administrators and the student’s parents on a need-to-know basis.
  • Ensure that enrollment contracts include provisions that put the responsibility on families to share information that may impact their children’s educational experience, including information about medical conditions and behavioral issues.
  • Review and update suicide prevention and response protocols consistent with medical recommendations and best practices.
  • Identify mental health resources available on and off campus and advise students and their families of these resources.
  • Review health and wellness curricula for students.
  • Provide professional development programming for school employees on how to talk about mental health issues, including suicide.
  • Educate the entire community about best practices with respect to suicide prevention and response, relevant resources, policies, practices, and other relevant information.

Please contact a member of the Firm’s education practice group if you have any questions about any of these issues or if we can be of assistance.