Do You Have a Duty to Prevent Suicide?

Massachusetts May Have Limited Circumstances of College Liability


Han Duy Nguyen was a 25-year-old graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who had a history of mental health treatment and depression when he committed suicide in 2009 after being chastised by a professor. Nguyen’s parents brought a wrongful death lawsuit against MIT, asserting that the university had a duty to care for their son, amounting to a responsibility to prevent his suicide.

It’s every parent’s nightmare that something tragic will happen to their young adult child as they venture out on their own for the first time. The suicide rate among young adults has been steadily on the rise, tripling since the 1950s, and it’s now the second leading cause of death among 20-24-year-olds.  The pressures of being away from home for the first time, and distance from a support network cited have been cited as exacerbating factors for students struggling with mental health issues.

The number of suicides at MIT is higher than average, reportedly 12.5 suicides per year per 100,000 students for the years 2010-2015. (Averages are thought to be approximately 7.5 per 100,000, although many schools do not track this data.) Because suicidal behavior is frequently observable by those in close proximity, should there be a legal duty on the part of an institution entrusted with student safety to take preventive action? 

Legal Requirement to Protect Others from Their Own Actions?

Historically, the law has said no. A legal doctrine entitled ‘in loco parentis’ (in place of the parent) applies to elementary and secondary schools, but not to colleges in the modern era. Under this rule, a school takes responsibility for a student in its care as if it were the parent, giving rise to a ‘special relationship,’ such that the school has additional legal duties. This can extend to protection from harm, such as a known suicide risk. But courts have been reluctant to apply this doctrine to post-secondary institutions.

In the Nguyen case, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts found that MIT did not have sufficient responsibility or knowledge to hold the school responsible: Nguyen was a 25-year-old adult who lived off campus, and sought medical and mental health care from non-MIT sources—none of whom had deemed him at imminent risk of suicide. Consequently, the court determined that there was not sufficient actual knowledge of Nguyen’s state, nor a quasi-parental relationship. The court’s opinion affirmed the long-held standard that, in general, “there is no duty to prevent another from committing suicide.”

The court further commented on the paramount need to respect a student’s right to “privacy, autonomy and self-determination.” When an adult student has refused or declined to seek help, there’s not a lot anyone can do to intervene. Furthermore, in today’s climate, institutions like colleges and universities no longer serve an in loco parentis role.

There May Be a Duty in Some Circumstances

The Nguyen decision did state an important potential exception to this result, noting that where a student has communicated an intent to commit suicide and a representative of the university considers such a threat credible and imminent, there may be a duty to take steps to prevent suicidal action. The representative doesn’t have to be a mental health professional to have an obligation to call on campus suicide prevention protocols, or notify the student’s emergency contact. This is considered a significant expansion of university legal duty.

Whether as a parent of a college student, or a member of an institution’s faculty or staff, the changing law of liability for student harm can be complicated. Talk to a personal injury attorney with experience in this area if you have questions.

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