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MIT Case Before Mass. High Court Examines Colleges' Liability For Student Suicides

In this 2015 file photo, students walk on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge. The state's Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments Tuesday in a lawsuit filed against MIT by the family of graduate student Han Nguyen, who killed himself in 2009. (Michael Dwyer/AP, File)MoreCloseclosemore
In this 2015 file photo, students walk on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus in Cambridge. The state's Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments Tuesday in a lawsuit filed against MIT by the family of graduate student Han Nguyen, who killed himself in 2009. (Michael Dwyer/AP, File)

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments Tuesday in a case that centers on whether colleges and universities can be held responsible for a student's suicide.

The family of Han Duy Nguyen, an MIT graduate student who killed himself in 2009, sued the school for wrongful death, claiming MIT employees knew of Nguyen's mental health issues and should have taken steps to prevent him from taking his own life.

"[Nguyen] was well known to this school to be at risk of student suicide," attorney Jeffrey Beeler, representing the Nguyen family, told the SJC justices. "The vast majority [of students at risk] ... are not known and [schools] are trying to draw those people in. And if you say to the schools, 'You don't need to use reasonable care except during what would be an imminent suicide crisis' ... what you do is you miss the opportunities that these schools have to intercede earlier in the process, which is when you can save these students."

Nguyen had sought help at MIT mental health services in 2007, but then he said he wanted to go off campus for his mental health care, according to court records and attorney statements made before the SJC. Nguyen was being treated at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Beeler said his professors knew of his mental illness.

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Nguyen killed himself minutes after a professor called him and berated him for sending an email that was considered offensive to another MIT scientist, according to court records. The professor, according to an email he sent to another professor, said he "read [Nguyen] the riot act."

The case is being watched by higher education officials nationwide. A group of 18 Massachusetts colleges and universities, including Harvard, Boston College and Northeastern, filed a brief urging the state's highest court to reject the case. The schools say employees who are not clinicians aren't trained to make judgments about a student's mental health. They also argue that making colleges and universities responsible for securing students against suicidal behavior could have a "chilling effect" on students with mental health issues because of overreaction and restrictive measures imposed on students thought to potentially be at risk.

Attorney Kevin Martin, representing MIT, argued before the SJC that colleges and universities aren't legally bound to protect students from suicide.

"No court has recognized a special relationship duty to protect somebody from their own self-inflicted harm," Martin said. "Society does not expect, for example, a landlord to protect a tenant from committing suicide in their own apartment building."

The SJC will issue a decision on the case within 130 days.

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Lynn Jolicoeur Twitter Producer/Reporter
Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.

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