The Massachusetts Institute of Technology cannot be held responsible for the death of a graduate student who killed himself on campus in 2009, the state’s highest court ruled Monday.
The Supreme Judicial Court sided with MIT in the closely watched case that examined whether colleges and universities have a duty to protect students from harming themselves.
Han Nguyen’s family said in their lawsuit that the school knew he was a suicide risk and could have prevented his death. The 25-year-old jumped from the top of a campus building moments after a professor confronted him about an offensive email.
But the high court said in its ruling that a school can only be held responsible when it either knew that a student has attempted suicide while enrolled, or shortly before entering, or was aware the student had said they plan to kill themselves.
The court said in those limited cases, the school must take “reasonable measures” to help the student. That would include initiating a suicide prevention protocol, getting the student in the care of a medical professional, or contacting police, fire or emergency medical personnel.
“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” happened well before he started at the school, the judges wrote in the decision. “He was also a 25-year-old adult graduate student living off campus, not a young student living in a campus dormitory under daily observation.”
An MIT spokeswoman and lawyer for the Nguyen family didn’t immediately respond to messages.
A group of 18 colleges and universities – including Harvard University and Boston College – told the court that holding MIT responsible for Nguyen’s death would have far-reaching consequences by causing officials with no medical expertise to overreact to concerns out of fear of liability.
Nguyen’s professors shared concerns about his mental health in the months leading up to his death, and one encouraged his colleagues to pass him or they might have “blood on their hands.”
Right before he killed himself, a professor “read him the riot act” over an email Nguyen sent to another MIT official that they believed was inappropriate, could records said.
The family said that the school should have known that “mishandling this fragile student” would result in his suicide.
But MIT said the school wasn’t aware of the severity of his condition, noting that he was treated by outside professionals and refused on-campus resources. None of the professionals who treated Nguyen while he was at MIT believed he was an imminent risk of killing himself, the school said.
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