Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology: A University Has a Limited Duty to Prevent Students from Committing Suicide
by Richard Fossey & Perry A. Zirkel — October 09, 2018
In May 2018, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that universities within its jurisdiction have a limited duty to prevent their students from committing suicide.
On June 2, 2009, Han Duy Nguyen, a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), spoke by phone to Professor Birger Wernerfelt, his MIT faculty academic advisor. Immediately after this conversation ended, Nguyen went to the roof of a campus building and jumped off the building to his death (Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2018).
Nguyens father sued MIT, Professor Wernerfelt, and two other MIT employees for negligence, arguing that MIT owed his son a duty to prevent him from taking his own life. In May 2018, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision in the case, ruling that universities in its jurisdiction indeed have a duty to prevent their students from committing suicide. This duty is limited however; and the court ruled further that MIT and its employees breached no duty to Nguyen and were not responsible for his death.
A TROUBLED YOUNG MAN STRUGGLES IN RIGOROUS GRADUATE PROGRAM AT MIT
In the fall of 2006, Han Duy Nguyen began graduate studies at MITs Sloan School of Management, seeking to obtain a Ph.D. and become a professor. Unfortunately, Nguyen struggled academically; and in May 2007, Nguyen contacted Sharon Cayley, Sloans Ph.D. program coordinator, asking for assistance with test-taking problems.
Cayley referred Nguyen to MITs student disability services office coordinator, who explained the accommodations available to students with disabilities. Nguyen declined these accommodations.
In June 2007, Cayley referred Nguyen to MITs mental health and counseling services, but after an initial meeting with a psychologist there, he declined these MIT services due to the stigma associated with it (p. 132).
In September 2007, Nguyen met with David Randall, the assistant dean for the student support office, expressing a need for study skills services. He admitted to a history of depression dating back to high school, to therapeutic treatment, and to two suicide attempts as an undergraduate, but he disavowed any present suicidal ideation or plans. When Randall strongly encouraged him to avail himself of MITs mental health services, Nguyen explained that he was privately seeing a psychiatrist and had additionally arranged to see another therapist, and he declined Randalls offers of further assistance.
During the next year and a half, Nguyen had discussions with various MIT professional personnel about his academic difficulties, but he insisted that his history of depression was separate from his academic problems. Meanwhile, he met with at least nine private mental-health professionals, who collectively recorded more than 90 in-person visits during this period. He never expressed a desire to commit suicide to any of these clinicians.
During all this time, Professor Wernerfelt was supportive of Nguyens academic difficulties. In May 2008, upon learning that Nguyen had performed poorly in one of his classes, he asked the instructor to grade Nguyen leniently due to Nguyens health problems. The following month Wernerfelt emailed seven of Nguyens professors, informing them that Nguyens general exams would be spread out over several weeks [i]n an attempt to reduce the pressure on [Nguyen] as much as possible (p. 136).
Nguyen took his general exams in January 2009, and he did not do well. When the faculty met to discuss Nguyens performance, Wernerfelt urged his colleagues to pass Nguyen and to counsel him to pursue a masters degree rather than a Ph.D. He also said the faculty would have blood on their hands if they failed Nguyen on his general exams (p. 136).
Shortly after this faculty meeting, Wernerfelt met with Nguyen, informing him that he had passed his general exams, but would be required to take certain additional courses to remain in the Ph.D. program. He also advised Nguyen that all members of the faculty felt that he would be unhappy in a professorial job and laid out a plan for Nguyen to obtain a Masters degree rather than continue in the Ph.D. program (p. 136). Nguyen rejected this advice and informed Professor Drazen Prelec, his research advisor, that he would do everything in his power to finish his Ph.D.
Like Professor Wernerfelt, MIT Professor Prelec was supportive. He arranged a summer research assistant job for Nguyen under the supervision of a project investigator. Unfortunately, Nguyen took offense to something the project investigator said and sent him an e-mail message that both Prelec and Wernerfelt considered inappropriate. Wernerfelt volunteered to speak with Nguyen about the message.
At 10:51 A.M. on June 2, 2009, Wernerfelt telephoned Nguyen and informed him that his e-mail communication was unprofessional and that he wanted to review his future program-related emails before they were sent. He also reiterated his advice about focusing on the masters degree. Immediately after this conversation, Nguyen committed suicide by jumping off the roof of the building.
THE MASSACHUSETTS SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT RULES
Nguyens father sued MIT, Wernerfelt, Prelec, and Randall, alleging they had negligently breached a duty to Nguyen to prevent him from committing suicide. A Massachusetts trial court dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that MIT and its employees breached no duty to Nguyen and were not responsible for his death.
On appeal, the Massachusetts Supreme Court affirmed the trial courts decision to dismiss the lawsuit against MIT; but it ruled that universities do have a limited duty to prevent their students from committing suicide:
[W]e conclude that a university has a special relationship with a student and a corresponding duty to take reasonable measures to prevent his or her suicide in the following circumstances. Where a university has actual knowledge of a students suicide attempt that occurred while enrolled at the university or recently before matriculation, or of a students 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 (pp. 142-143).
The court then went on to articulate the reasonable measures a university should take when it knows a student is suicidal.
Reasonable measures by the university to satisfy a triggered duty will include initiating its suicide prevention protocol if the university has developed such a protocol. In the absence of such a protocol, reasonable measures will require the university employee who learns of the students suicide attempt or stated plans or intentions to commit suicide to contact the appropriate officials at the university empowered to assist the student in obtaining clinical care from medical professionals or, if the student refuses such care, to notify the students emergency contact. In emergency situations, reasonable measures obviously would include contacting police, fire, or emergency medical personnel. (p. 145)
The Massachusetts court emphasized that the duty to prevent a student from committing suicide was limited to taking the measures the court had spelled out. Moreover, the duty was time-bound. Medical professionals may, for example, conclude the student is no longer a suicide risk and no further care or counseling is required (p. 145).
Interestingly, after clearly spelling out a universitys duty to prevent students from committing suicide, the court ruled that MIT and its employees had breached no duty to Nguyen. 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, the court observed. In addition, the court continued, Nguyen was a twenty-five year old adult graduate student living off campus, not a young student living in a campus dormitory under daily observation. Finally, the court pointed out, Nguyen repeatedly made clear that he wanted to keep his mental health issues separate from his academic performance problems and that he was seeking professional help from psychiatrists and psychologists outside the MIT Mental Health System (p. 146).
CONCLUSION: UNIVERSITIES HAVE A LIMITED DUTY TO PREVENT STUDENTS FROM COMMITTING SUICIDE
For several reasons, the higher education community should not be alarmed by the Nguyen decision. First, the decision is only binding in Massachusetts, and most jurisdictions have been reluctant to impose a duty on colleges and universities to prevent students from committing suicide (Fossey & Zirkel, 2011). Second, the Massachusetts court only imposed a limited duty to prevent students from taking their own lives, a duty that most college and university leaders are surely willing to bear. Finally, most institutions already have suicide prevention protocols in place that meet the standards articulated by Nguyen.
Colleges with suicide prevention plans should review them to make sure they comply with the Nguyen standards; and colleges that do not have suicide-prevention protocols should adopt them. And, most importantly, all college and university employees should be informed that they have a duty to act if a student expresses an intention to commit suicide or if they learn that a student attempted suicide while enrolled or shortly before matriculation.
Fossey, R. & Zirkel, P. (2011). University liability for student suicide: A review of case law. In D. A. Lamis & D. Lester (Eds.). Understanding and preventing college student suicide (pp. 291-306). Springfield, Ill. Charles C. Thomas.
Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 96 N.E.2d 128 (Mass. 2018).