Monday, November 20, 2017

Should a university and its professors be liable when a student commits suicide?

An interesting case heading to the Massachusetts supreme court will explore whether schools can be held responsible when students take their own lives.  The case arouse out of a suicide at MIT.  The student was reportedly battling depression and “struggling” at school.  One day, moments after a professor confronted him about an offensive e-mail, the student took his own life.

The student’s family has argued that the University had a legal duty to use reasonable care to protect the student from harm because professors and other MIT officials knew he was a suicide risk.

Torts students will recognize the connection between two lines of cases discussed in class.  Typically, courts will not impose a duty on institutions of higher education to control or intervene with their adult students decisions, even if the students cause harm to themselves.  On the other hand, in cases originating in the famous decision in Tarasoff v.  Regents of the University of California, many jurisdictions have adopted a duty to help unsuspecting victims based on confidential patient information obtained by therapists. 

The case in Massachusetts seems to combine elements from both of these lines of cases.  The big difference is that the new case seems to seek to impose a duty to act on all employees of the University who can be claimed to have had some knowledge of the state of mind of the student. 

This would put a new, and unprecedented, burden on professors, who are not really in a position to evaluate the state of mind of their students.  In fact, according to one account I read on this case, none of the nine professionals who treated the student while he was at MIT believed he was an imminent risk of killing himself.  On the other hand, however, at least one of the professors involved apparently had a good sense of the problem, since he is quoted as having warned others that they needed to act or they would have "blood on their hands."

In fact, one point of contention in cases like Tarasoff is whether, or at what point, can a therapist really know that the patient will act up.  Thus, it can easily be argued that it would be a bad idea to place a similar burden on Professors who are not trained to recognize warning signs or to provide therapy.  Among other things, 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.  It may also create chilling effects on professors willingness to provide feedback, or to cover certain topics in class. 

Although I have not done a full search on the question, I don’t remember every hearing of a case in which a court has held that an university has a legal duty to prevent student suicides.

Interestingly, even if the court were to recognize a cause of action, it would still have to address the issue of whether the conduct of the victim in deciding to commit suicide should be considered to be a superseding cause that defeats the cause of action.  

You can read more about the case here.

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