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Newsletter > September 2005 > "CAN A COLLEGE BE LIABLE FOR SUICIDE?"
CAN A COLLEGE BE LIABLE FOR SUICIDE?
Tim Burke, Manley Burke, firstname.lastname@example.org
Elizabeth Shin was a troubled young Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) student. She suffered from repeated mental health episodes. The first occurred in the spring semester of her freshman year when she overdosed on Tylenol with Codeine and spent a week in the hospital under psychiatric care. During the course of that treatment, she shared her history of mental health problems in high school, including deliberately cutting herself.
In the fall of her sophomore year, she told one MIT associate dean she was considering suicide and had been cutting herself. A month later, another associate dean learned that she had been cutting herself again and convinced her to see MIT psychiatrists. The following month the second associate dean learned that Elizabeth had told people she bought sleeping pills with the intention to take them.
In March of her sophomore year, Elizabeth was again reported to be cutting herself. She spent another day at MIT’s mental health facility. By that time, her dormitory Housemaster received what, according to MIT’s own web site, were “frequent reports from Random Hall (the dorm where Elizabeth lived) students and graduate resident tutors that Shin is not well.” In early April of 2000, MIT doctors saw her again and the possibility of hospitalization was discussed. In the same time frame, a professor contacted an associate dean about the cuts on Shin’s arms. On April 8th, Shin told a student she planned to commit suicide and the student reports that to the MIT police. Two days later, on the 10th, at 12:30 in the morning, two of the other students in her dormitory told the Random Hall Housemaster that Elizabeth said she would kill herself later that day, and said “you won’t have to worry about me any more.”
That morning, in what has been described as a “Deans and Psychs Meeting,” Elizabeth was the topic of conversation again and an appointment was made for her at an outside hospital the next day. A phone message was left on her machine by a university official. At 9:00 p.m. on the night of April 10, 2000, a smoke alarm was heard going off in Shin’s room. Campus police broke down the door and found her with her clothing on fire. With third degree burns over 65% of her body, Elizabeth died four days later after life support was withdrawn.
On January 28, 2002, Elizabeth Shin’s parents filed suit and sought $27.65 million dollars in damages. The suit named as defendants MIT administrators, medical professionals, and three MIT campus police officers.1 After significant discovery had taken place in the case, a series of motions for summary judgment by the defendants were filed.
Summary judgment asks a court to determine that as a matter of law there are no facts in dispute which, if found to exist, would, together with those facts that are undisputed, support specific causes of action against the individual defendants.
The denial of a motion for summary judgment does not mean necessarily that the defendants are liable. Rather, it means that there are significant facts in dispute which, if found by the trier of fact, typically a jury, could justify a finding of liability. On June 22, 2005, Justice Christine M. McEvoy of the Massachusetts Superior Court, issued a Memorandum of Decision and Order on the pending motions for summary judgment.2
The plaintiffs had claimed that MIT breached its contract with Elizabeth Shin in failing to provide Elizabeth with adequate care and protection. The court had no difficulty agreeing that the relationship between a university and a student is contractual in nature, but recognized that court’s are generally “slow to intrude into the sensitive area of the student-college relationship.” The judge did note that under Massachusetts law, statements in college handbooks, catalogues, even brochures, advertisements and other promotional materials could form the basis of a valid contract. But based on past decisions, such promises must be “definite and certain so that the promissor should reasonably foresee that it will induce reliance.”3 In attempting to determine whether the promises made by MIT rose to the level of being well defined policies and procedures on which reliance could be assumed, the court looked at specific statements contained in an MIT medical department brochure which included broad statements like “we offer you – at no charge – a wide-range of mental health professionals to assist [you]” and “these care givers will also help you maintain good health.” The court found such representations to be insufficient to form the basis of a contract upon which liability in the litigation could be based. Finding that there had been no “specific promises,” the court granted summary judgment to MIT so that the University is no longer a defendant in the case.
University administrators did not fare as well. The claims against University administrators included negligent misrepresentation, negligence, wrongful death, wrongful death-gross negligence, and others. While noting that generally one individual does not have the duty to take action to rescue or protect another from conditions not created by the first, the administrators sought support in Massachusetts law which provided that generally there was a duty to prevent a suicide only if the individual alleged to have the duty caused the suicidal condition or had the decedent in their physical custody. The court, however, looked to the Restatement of Torts,4 which recognized that additional duties may “arise out of special relationships between the parties, which create a special responsibility.”
The judge commented on several cases discussing the area of “special relationships … special responsibility.” In Mullins v. Pine Manor College,5 the plaintiff had been taken forcibly from her dorm room and raped. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the college and an administrator owed a duty to exercise care to protect the well-being of their resident students.
In another college student suicide case, a United States District Court in Virginia relied on the special relationship between a college and its student to hold that a trier of fact could conclude that if the university administrator knew that there was “an imminent probability” that decedent would try to hurt himself if the administrator did not act, liability could attach.6
Judge McEvoy found that because the two university administrators were “well aware of Elizabeth’s mental problems,” had received numerous reports from students and faculty and a specific report that she planned to commit suicide on the day she ultimately did, there was sufficient evidence that the administrators “could reasonably foresee that Elizabeth would hurt herself without proper supervision.” Therefore, a jury could find there was a special relationship between the administrators and Elizabeth which imposed a duty on the administrators to exercise reasonable care to protect Elizabeth from harm. Therefore, the court denied the administrator’s motions for summary judgment on most of the claims made against them.
Unless this lawsuit is settled, the case will now go to trial in front of a jury against those defendants who remain in the case on the claims that the judge did not dismiss.
Significant attention is being paid to this decision in higher education circles. The Chronicle of Higher Education on August 12, 2005, carried a front page story on the decision. The Chronicle quotes Sheldon E. Steinback, the Vice President and General Counsel of the American Council on Education, as saying, “By allowing the Shin family to have a foot in the courthouse, it will encourage others to seek a similar resolution. It increases the scope of liability, the expansion of the blame game, and the potential for suits solely designed for settlement.” Gary Pavela, who directs student judicial programs and student ethical development at the University of Maryland at College Park, is quoted by The Chronicle as noting, “Some would say there is a problem in terms of under-reaction on the part of administrators to a known suicide threat or attempt. What these cases [MIT and Ferrum] are saying is that one should err on the side of over-reaction.”
There is a word of caution in these cases for fraternities and sororities, especially those with houses. While fraternities and sororities typically do not promise or provide mental health counseling, most colleges do. Though MIT promoted that service, it was not enough to sustain a valid contract claim against the university and it is even less likely to succeed against a fraternity. However, it is not difficult to foresee the possibility of a claim of a special relationship between a fraternity chapter and its member. Such a special relationship was enough in the MIT case to insure that the administrators would, in the absence of a settlement, face a trial.
Threats of suicide cannot be ignored. Get help. If a threat of suicide is made and chapter officers are aware of it, they should seek professional assistance immediately, contact university or community-based mental health professionals, encourage the member involved to seek professional assistance. Do not hesitate to call for police assistance if that appears to be what is necessary. If the student has agreed in advance that in an emergency situation his or her parents are to be contacted, do it. If there is no advance authorization to contact the parents, before doing so, seek legal guidance promptly.
While the concept of in loco parentis on college campuses was abandoned decades ago, a recognition that students are adults responsible for their own behavior may not always be enough to protect a university’s administrators from liability and it is at least theoretically possible that the same claims could be made against a fraternity or sorority officer.
1 Shin, et al. v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, et al., Middlesex County Superior Court, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Civil Action No. 02-0403.
2 This decision does not deal with the claims against the MIT police officers. They were voluntarily dismissed as defendants. The decision denied the medical professionals’ motion for summary judgment, finding that they were factual claims, which if found to be true, could support liability against them.
3 Guckenberger v. Boston University, 974 F. Supp. 106 at 150 (D. Mass. 1997).
4 Section 314(A) of the Restatement (Second) of Torts.
5 Mullins v. Pine Manor College, 389 Mass. 47 (1983).