Decision Released in Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

On May 7, 2018, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court [SJC] released it decision in Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, SJC-12329, a case that addressed the issue of what duty of care an Institution of Higher Education [IHE] owes to its students who were known to be at risk of suicide. In its opinion, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court expanded the law by recognizing that an IHE does have a special relationship with its students – including graduate students – which gives rise to a duty of care in connection with the foreseeable risk student suicide. Specifically, the Court noted that where an IHE has actual knowledge: (1) of a student’s suicide attempt that occurred while enrolled at the IHE or recently before matriculation; or, (2) of a student’s stated plans or intentions to commit suicide, the IHE must initiate its suicide prevention protocol. If the IHE has no such protocol, it must arrange for clinical care by trained mental health professionals. If such treatment is refused by the student, the student’s emergency contact must be alerted.

While this firm and Han’s estate are disappointed by the Court’s decision to take the factual analysis from the jury, and its ultimate conclusion that no duty arose under the Court’s construction of the facts, 9 years after Han’s death and after 7 years of litigation, there can be little doubt that the rule of the Nguyen case will save student lives going forward. Contrary, to the position of the IHEs that filed briefs in this case, the Court has explicitly found that they do owe a duty of care to their students at risk of suicide.

Approximately 1,100 college students a year die by suicide. Prudent IHE’s, for decades, have implemented suicide prevention programs. For example, the University of Illinois’ program has cut its incidence of student suicide in half at a reported cost of $1.35 per student. The SJC’s decision will ensure that IHEs that fail to implement and follow such protocols will face significant legal consequences, and thereby be incentivized to prevent future student suicides.

For more information, contact:

Jeffrey S. Beeler, Esq.
Heinlein Beeler Mingace & Heineman, P.C.
276 Union Avenue
Framingham, MA 01702
(508) 626-8500

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