[March 21, 2020] Sabbatical update: For obvious reasons, I am home, and not in Africa. Thanks to my wife who booked my return journey from Windhoek to Boston. Stay tuned for a return to normalcy. Meanwhile, #QuarantineLife.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Court refuses to dismiss Harvard in student-suicide suit

The Massachuetts Superior Court, per Judge Michael D. Ricciuti, denied Harvard University's motion to dismiss a negligence claim brought by the parent of a student, Luke Tang, who committed suicide on campus in 2015.  The case comes in the wake of a 2018 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) decision refusing to allow the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to be held responsible for a student's suicide.

Luke Tang lived at Harvard's Lowell House.  (Photo by Carrie Anderson
CC BY-SA 2.0)
In the 2015 case, Nguyen v. MIT, discussed here, the SJC ruled that the university-student relationship does not support a duty in tort law akin to the custodial relationship between a parent and child, or custodian and dependent.  That ruling was consistent with historic and enduring common law norms, which hold that a person's intentional suicide, in some jurisdictions a crime, interrupts the chain of duty and causation that would link the death to any earlier-in-time carelessness.

However, the SJC left open the possibility that a university could be responsible for a suicide if the decedent had been in a "special relationship" with the defendant.  "Special relationship" is a term of art in tort law, referring to the very relationships in which public policy supports a person's expectation of care from another.

In the instant case, Tang v. Harvard College, plaintiff seeks to pin liability on Harvard and its employees through that very allowance for special relationships.  As reported by the Harvard Crimson last year, Tang was known to Harvard as a suicide risk.  Tang had been transported to a hospital after a suicide attempt freshman year.  When he returned to school, he signed an agreement with Harvard that he would stay in counseling with Harvard mental health staff.  Returning to school after the summer, though, Tang failed to keep his appointments, and the complaint alleges that Harvard failed to follow up.

Special relationships in tort law can be created when a medical professional undertakes care of a patient, or when any person voluntarily takes on the responsibility of caring for another, which can be signified by action or contract.  Tang's theory of special relationship resonates in those ways, considering the counseling function of Harvard staff and the agreement that Tang signed with Harvard.

Superior Court Justice Michael D. Ricciuti found sufficient basis to distinguish Nguyen.  Justice Ricciuti wrote, "Harvard's argument to dismiss this case reduces Nguyen to a check-box, and that once a university checks one of the three boxes—a protocol, or if there is none, clinical care, or if that is refused, reaching an emergency contact—its duty ends regardless of how well or poorly the university fulfils its duty. That interpretation cannot be correct."

Justice Ricciuti is himself a 1984 graduate of Harvard Law.  A native of Quincy, Massachusetts, he was in private practice and served as federal prosecutor before being confirmed to the bench.

The case is Tang v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, No. 18-2603 (Mass. Super. Ct. Sept. 9, 2019).  Hat tip @ Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly (pay wall).  Read more at The Harvard Crimson.  For a short time, I will park a copy of Justice Ricciuti's ruling here.

A documentary film about Luke Tang, Looking for Luke, seeks to raise awareness of mental health problems affecting young people.  Here is the trailer.


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