Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge

Court rules that MIT is not responsible for student's suicide

May 7, 2018
The state's Supreme Judicial Court upholds a lower court decision that the school is not liable in the 2009 death of graduate student Han Nguyen.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge is not responsible for the 2009 suicide of MIT student Han Duy Nguyen.

The Springfield Republican reports that the ruling upheld a lower court decision that also determined that MIT was not liable.

Nguyen, 25, was a graduate student at MIT's Sloan School of Management when he killed himself on June 2, 2009. Nguyen had struggled academically at MIT.

He had a history of depression and two suicide attempts during college, and he received mental health services at MIT and off-campus.

After his death, Nguyen's father sued the college and his son's professors and an assistant dean. He contended that they were negligent in not preventing Nguyen's death. The lawsuit argued that school officials had a "duty of reasonable care" to prevent his son's suicide, and they breached that duty.

A Superior Court judge ruled in favor of MIT, saying the school was not liable. The SJC upheld the ruling.

The Supreme Judicial Court decision, written by Justice Scott Kafker, found that generally, no one has a duty to prevent suicide. There is an exception in certain cases, such as in a hospital or prison where someone is in custody, where there can be a duty to stop someone from harming themselves.

The justices noted that graduate students are legally adults. "Universities are not responsible for monitoring and controlling all aspects of their students' lives," Kafker wrote.

The court ruled that universities have a responsibility to try to prevent suicide only in specific circumstances, including when a university has knowledge of a recent suicide attempt or of a student's plan to commit suicide.

That responsibility is not triggered by knowing that a student has suicidal thoughts without knowing that the student plans to act on those thoughts.

Prevention includes steps like helping a student obtain medical care, reaching out to the student's emergency contact, or calling the police or emergency medical personnel.

In Nguyen's case, the court concluded, Nguyen never told any MIT employee that he planned to kill himself, and any prior suicide attempt happened more than a year before he arrived on the MIT campus.

Nguyen was an adult living off campus, who said repeatedly that he was seeking psychological help, and he wanted to keep his mental health issues separate from his academic performance.

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