Thursday, December 28, 2017

Should a school be liable if a student commits suicide?

A student’s suicide at MIT has sparked a contentious legal battle before the Massachusetts’ supreme court over whether a university can be held responsible when students take their own lives. The case is important to colleges and universities because a decision against the university could place an unreasonable burden on untrained employees to stop suicides.

The case involves a student who was allegedly suffering from depression and struggling with his schoolwork.  Then one day, moments after a professor confronted him about something the student wrote in an e-mail, the 25-year-old took his own life.

The student’s family sued, claiming his death was preventable and that the school had a legal duty to use reasonable care to protect him from harm.  MIT has replied that the school wasn’t aware of the severity of the student’s condition and that he was treated by outside professionals, none of whom thought the student was a risk to himself.

The case involves two issues typically covered in a first year Torts class: whether a school has a duty to help students, and whether the decision to commit suicide operates as a superseding cause that defeats the plaintiff’s argument of proximate cause.

There are many cases out there that hold that a university does not have a duty to help adult students protect themselves from harm, or to monitor their daily lives; but this can change if the school has acted in a way that shows it has assumed a duty.  It also may be affected by the state’s law regarding the definition of a “special relationship” which may give rise to a duty to help.

On this issue, there is also the question of whether it would be a good idea to apply a standard designed for health professionals based on the famous Tarasoff case to faculty members (who are typically not trained as medical professionals, much less as psychologists or psychiatrists).

This is an interesting question, but the answer should be that it is not a good idea.  First, let’s not forget that, contrary to popular belief, Tarasoff has not been adopted in all jurisdictions.  (The jurisdiction I live in has rejected it several times.  Go here for one such case.)  So, it can be argued that even applied to health professionals, it is not a good policy to follow.  Second, applying a policy that is based on the specific training of those to whom it applies does not make much sense when you try to extend it to apply to people who do not have that training.  Also, imposing a duty on people who are not trained could have unintended negative consequences.  Fear of liability may cause professors and others without mental health expertise to overreact, which in turn could discourage students from coming forward with their problems to those who could offer help.

As to the second issue, many jurisdictions hold that the decision to commit suicide is a superseding cause as a matter of law, perhaps based on the notion that it is unforeseeable that someone would choose to end their life on purpose.  Yet, an argument can be made that this is not always the case.  In fact, it is not difficult to come up with examples of cases where you can argue it is foreseeable that someone would commit (or try to commit) suicide.  For this reason, the cases on this question can be inconsistent.  (For an example of one such case, go here.)

Reportedly, a group of 18 colleges and universities — including Harvard University and Boston College — urged the state supreme court to reject the plaintiffs’ claim, saying a decision in favor of the family could have devastating consequences. Stay tuned.

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