Barbara Howard: Do colleges have an obligation to prevent student suicides? That was the subject of a ruling from the state's highest court [Monday], and with us to explain the decision from the Supreme Judicial Court is WGBH News Legal Analyst Daniel Medwed. He's a law professor at Northeastern University. Hi there, Daniel.
Medwed: Hi Barbara.
Howard: Now the basis of this case is Han Nguyen. He was a graduate student at MIT, in Cambridge. He killed himself back in the year 2009, and his family sued MIT for negligence — they said the school was obligated to try to prevent Nguyen's suicide and failed. But the court today said that in this particular case, MIT had no such obligation. How come?
Medwed: This is how the court analyzed it: first, generally there's no duty of care to protect other people from committing suicide — your neighbors, your co-workers, and so on — except if there's a special relationship that creates that duty. And the court cited two of them: custodial relationships, like being in jail or being in a hospital. However, the university setting, according to the court, is much more complicated. In general, there's no overall university-student duty to monitor and control behavior, including a duty to prevent suicide. That could be too intrusive and could encroach on privacy. But on the other hand, there could be a special relationship if the university has actual knowledge of the suicide attempt in the past or knows of a person’s stated plans or clear intentions to do so. Then you would have a duty to prevent. Apparently in this case the student never communicated to any MIT employee that he had such stated plans or intentions, so the court determined that there was no such duty.
Howard: And he wasn't being cared for by clinicians on the campus; he had sought outside help for his mental issues.
Medwed: Absolutely. There were two critical facts that I think underscored, or underlay, this opinion. First, he was not apparently seeking help from MIT mental health professionals. He was, as you point out, relying on outside assistance. And second, he was a 25-year-old grad student who was living off-campus. I imagine it could have been a different scenario had it been an undergrad who was living in a dormitory, who had maybe communicated a few things to people in the dorm — employees and others.
Howard: Well still though, despite finding that MIT was not negligent in this specific case — Nguyen's death — the Supreme Judicial Court did spell out some specific scenarios in which colleges are legally bound to intervene when it comes to preventing student suicide. So what did the SJC say there?
Medwed: So what the SJC said is that if there is this special relationship — say the university has actual knowledge of a previous suicide attempt on campus — then the special duty to care is triggered. And the court mentioned that basically the way to fulfill that duty is if you initiate a suicide prevention protocol, if there is one at the university, or you contact appropriate medical personnel, or at a minimum, contact the student's emergency person. So the idea is that the duty could be triggered under limited circumstances and it's not especially onerous to fulfill that duty. You just have to initiate the protocol or perhaps make some phone calls.
Howard: OK. So Massachusetts colleges are obligated under these scenarios to step in with students who may be at risk of suicide. But does this mandate mean that we might see a decline in suicides on campuses?
Medwed: I'm not sure. One thing that's quite interesting is the court mentioned that the statement by the student has to be quite concrete and clear. Just generalized suicidal ideation, saying something like, 'I wish I were dead,' or something very non-specific, might not be enough to trigger this duty.
So I do wonder what might happen. I mean, perhaps this decision could encourage medical professionals to err on the side of caution if they're on the fence about whether or not the person is manifesting a clear threat. So maybe, on the margins, this could be helpful as a suicide prevention measure, though I think the courts main thrust regards the extent of university liability.
Howard: OK. Thanks for joining us, Daniel.
Medwed: My pleasure, Barbara.
Howard: That's WGBH News legal analyst Daniel Medwed. He's a law professor at Northeastern University and he was talking with us about the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling [Monday] that MIT was not negligent in the 2009 suicide of student Han Nguyen. However, in its ruling, the court did spell out areas in which colleges could be held liable for a student's suicide.