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Monday, May 7, 2018

Mass. supreme court: MIT owed no duty in suicide case

Today the high court of Massachusetts held no duty, as a matter of law, in a wrongful death case of attenuated duty and causation in which the plaintiff sought to hold the Massachusetts Institute of Technology liable in negligence for a struggling student's suicide.  The court left the door open for proof of a special relationship on different facts.

Tort watchers and university counsel near and far have been awaiting the decision in Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, No. SJC-12329 (May 7, 2018).  The November 7 oral argument in the case is online here.
 
A university-student relationship is not completely outside the custodial scope that gives rise to a duty in tort law in K12, the court held; nor is it completely the same.  Rather, the court "must ... take into account a complex mix of competing considerations.  Students are adults but often young and vulnerable; their right to privacy and their desire for independence may conflict with their immaturity and need for protection."

With regard to a suicide risk, reasonable foreseeability is key to the special relationship/duty analysis.  Relevant factors include whether student reliance on the university impeded others who might have rendered aid, as might occur in a student-residential environment; and, from research by emerita Washington & Lee University Law School professor Ann MacLean Massie, the court quoting,

"degree of certainty of harm to the plaintiff; burden upon the defendant to take reasonable steps to prevent the injury; some kind of mutual dependence of plaintiff and defendant upon each other, frequently . . . involving financial benefit to the defendant arising from the relationship; moral blameworthiness of defendant's conduct in failing to act; and social policy considerations involved in placing the economic burden of the loss on the defendant."
In discussing the flexibility of this analysis, Judge Learned Hand's famous BPL test made an appearance (a test customarily directed to breach rather than duty), off-setting the gravity of a suicide by probability, and balancing the result against the burden on the university of employing effective preventive measures.  The court also emphasized the dispositive nature of actual knowledge: "Where 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."

In the instant case, "Nguyen never communicated by words or actions to any MIT employee that he had stated plans or intentions to commit suicide, and any prior suicide attempts occurred well over a year before matriculation."  He also strove to partition his mental health treatment from his academic life.

The court upheld summary judgment for the defendant on the tort claims as a matter of law.

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