Preventing Student Suicide: The Anatomy of a Lawsuit

On September 12, 2015, Luke Tang, a sophomore at Harvard College committed suicide in the basement of his dormitory, Lowell House. HBMHlaw has been retained by the Tang family to pursue a lawsuit against Harvard and its employees alleging claims of wrongful death, negligence and medical malpractice.

This dedicated page on the HBMH website will track the course of the lawsuit by providing visitors to the site real time information on the progress of the case. HBMH intends to provide access to all of the public filings in the case together with other information discovered during the case. It is the hope of HBMHlaw to provide greater awareness of growing mental health issues and the rise of student suicide on college campuses.

Further, the lawyers at HBMHlaw also understand that most people who are involved in lawsuits are newcomers to the process. This new web page will explain in detail the litigation process and what individuals can expect should it be necessary to file their case in court. Hopefully the information provided will assist individuals and their families with expectations about the steps involved with each case, timing, the discovery process and case resolution.

Latest Update 10/04/19 (Ruling on Motion to Dismiss and Media Response)

When we last updated this blog, Harvard had filed a Motion to Dismiss our Complaint asserting that it had fulfilled any duty it owed to Luke Tang following his prior, on-campus, suicide attempt. On September 3, 2019, Superior Court Judge Michael Ricciuti heard oral arguments on behalf of the parties in the Middlesex County Superior Court. Attorney David W. Heinlein of HBMHlaw argued on behalf of the Tang family and Martin Murphy, Esq. from FOLEY HOAG, LLP argued on behalf of Harvard and its employees. The argument was attended by local media and you can listen to a WGBH story, with audio from the argument, discussing the Tang case and student suicide in Massachusetts colleges and universities here.

On September 9, 2019, Judge Ricciuti issued a written decision denying Harvard’s Motion to Dismiss. The full opinion can be read here: Among the findings made by Judge Ricciuti he notes that a strict reading of the prior Nguyen v. MIT, 479 Mass. 436 (2018) decision, as advanced by Harvard, is unsustainable.

Put simply, Harvard’s argument to dismiss this case reduces Nguyen to a check-box, and that once a university checks one of three boxes- a [suicide prevention] protocol, or if there is none, clinical care, or if that is refused, reaching an emergency contact- its duty ends regardless of how well or poorly the university fulfils its duty. That interpretation cannot be correct.

Memorandum and Order on Defendants’ Motions to Dismiss, p.7. It is the position of HBMHlaw that this ruling by Judge Ricciuti is supported by the Nguyen decision and to some degree extends the Nguyen decision authored by the Supreme Judicial Court.

Following the court’s ruling on the motion to dismiss, the local media recognized the importance of this decision and reported its significance. You can read articles from the Boston Globe and Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly here:

Now the case shifts to what is called the discovery phase. All parties in the case are allowed to ask each other written questions and are allowed to request documents they believe may be relevant to the case. If one party does not want to answer a written question or does not want to produce certain documents, as often happens, then that party may object to the request. Unless the parties are able to resolve the objection privately, ultimately the court will hold a hearing and rule on the validity of objections asserted.

As part of discovery, the parties may also conduct depositions of the parties to the case and witnesses who may hold information relevant to the case. These depositions typically occur in the office of counsel and are attended by all counsel of record who are given the opportunity to question witnesses.

The court has set a “discovery deadline” on the Tang case for August 31, 2020.

Latest Update: 04/08/19 (Hearing on Motion to Dismiss)

The court has scheduled a hearing on Harvard's Motion to Dismiss for August 13, 2109, at 2:00 p.m. in Courtroom 620, Middlesex County Superior Court.

The notice can be viewed here.

All court proceedings in civil cases are open to the public (with some limited exceptions). Once the court has heard oral arguments on the motion, it typically will issue a written decision.

Latest Update: 03/26/19 (The Harvard Crimson II)

On March 25, 2019, the Harvard Crimson published an article which discusses Harvard's Motion to Dismiss and our Opposition. You can read the article here.

We continue to await a date for a court hearing on the motion to dismiss.

Latest Update: 03/20/19 (The Harvard Crimson)

While we wait for the court to schedule a date on Harvard's Motion to Dismiss, we though we would provide this link to an article published in The Harvard Crimson this past November about Luke and our lawsuit.

Latest Update: 03/11/19 (Harvard’s Motion to Dismiss and the Plaintiff’s Opposition)

The first document filed in the case by Harvard (called a “responsive pleading”) is a Motion to Dismiss our case. You can read Harvard’s motion, memorandum in support of the motion and reply brief here, here and here.

We submitted an opposition to the motion to dismiss with accompanying memorandum,here, which has been filed with the court.

Next, the court will schedule a hearing on the motion which will take place in the Middlesex County Superior Court in Woburn, MA. Once we have received notice of the date and time for the hearing, the notice will be published as a further update.

In our opinion, Harvard’s attempt to have our case dismissed before any discovery can be conducted relies on a misinterpretation of the Supreme Judicial Court’s 2018 decision in Nguyen v. Mass. Inst. of Tech., 479 Mass. 436 (2018), another student suicide case involving MIT. While acknowledging that Harvard has a special relationship with students as held in Nguyen, and a corresponding duty to exercise reasonable care under the circumstances, Defendants’ Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion to Dismiss Complaint and Jury Demand [“Harvard Memo”], p.6, Harvard takes the position that the plaintiff cannot prove that Harvard breached its duty of care, or, was negligent. Harvard Memo, p.7.

It is important to note that at this stage of the case, the plaintiff does not have to prove his or her case. Within the Complaint as pled, the plaintiff must allege facts “plausibly suggesting…an entitlement to relief,” or, “that raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Iannacchino v. Ford Motor Company, 451 Mass. 623 (2008). After we meet with client to discuss a case we collect as much information as possible (police reports, medical records, etc.) to further understand the case. When we file a complaint, as long as we have good faith basis for making an allegation, we can include that “fact” within the Complaint. And. under the law in Massachusetts (and pretty much everywhere else) when considering a motion to dismiss, the judge must take all allegations in the complaint as true.

Within our Complaint we allege that Harvard and its employees, once Luke Tang was on their radar screen as a suicide risk, failed to initiate suicide prevention protocols as required under Nguyen and otherwise failed to exercise reasonable care for Luke’s safety. Once Luke returned to Harvard for his sophomore year directly to campus from his summer break in China, we allege that Harvard did nothing to make sure that Luke was receiving the medical care he needed and which Harvard required him to have under a written contract. We further allege that because Harvard knew of Luke’s prior suicide attempt, it required Luke to enter into that contract as a condition of his continued enrollment at Harvard. From the time of his return to campus in August until the time of his death, Luke had no mental health treatment.

It is our hope that the motion to dismiss will be denied and that we will be able to proceed with discovery by way of written questions and document requests to Harvard together with depositions of all individuals at Harvard who were involved with Luke.

Latest Update: 03/08/19

When a new client comes to HBMHlaw, the initial meeting has many purposes but one of the most important is an interview. We interview the client to assess the strength of the case and the client should interview us to make sure that he/she is comfortable with the fit. The litigation process is a team effort. We have years of experience with the litigation process but we also need the client to provide us information to assist our efforts.

You will often hear lawyers say that a case is “always better settled” and while we generally agree with that opinion, it is important to prepare each case from Day One as if it will be going to trial. This approach ensures that your lawyers have gathered all information about a case and also it tells defense counsel and the insurance company that we are detail oriented and ready to go to trial if the insurance company fails to offer our client full value for their injury and losses.

Once HBMHlaw has been retained by the client, we work to gather as much information as possible at this early stage to build the case. In personal injury cases the materials collected include medical records and bills; lost wage documentation; police reports; witness statements; and, photographs of the accident scene, property damage and injuries suffered. Typically these materials are then sent to the insurance company defending the case to review and, ultimately, as part of a demand package. We consult with our clients about what the opening demand will be (understanding that there will be a negotiation and that our initial demand will in the usual course be reduced) and this demand will be presented to the insurance company. If the insurer responds with a reasonable settlement offer then the negotiation continues until a settlement is reached or until an impasse is reached. An impasse results in a lawsuit being filed and the court process begins.

However, there are often times that based our experience we will recommend to the client that we forego the initial settlement discussions and file suit as soon as practicable. This advice may be because we know that the insurance company involved has a business practice of being unreasonable and only makes fair offers once a lawsuit is filed or as trial approaches; or, it may be because the nature of the case is so complex that we know from experience that settlement offers rarely come early in those types of cases so there is no reason to delay the court battle. The types of cases which most often result in lawsuits being filed in court are medical malpractice cases, products liability cases and wrongful death cases.

In the case of the Estate of Luke Tang v. President and Fellows of Harvard College,, filed in the Middlesex Superior Court, Docket No. 1881CV02603, a tactical decision was made to file suit without any pre-suit discussions with the defendants. A copy of the Complaint filed in the case is attached here as well as the “CIVIL TRACKING ORDER” issued by the Court. The tracking order sets a schedule and deadlines for events on the case and provides the parties a reasonable estimate of when the case will be ready for trial, if necessary. The Estate of Luke Tang case involves allegations of negligence and medical malpractice resulting in wrongful death.

Once a Complaint has been filed and served by a deputy sheriff on each defendant, they each then have twenty days to file a response to the Complaint. In the Estate of Luke Tang case, one of the defendants filed an Answer to the Complaint and all of the other defendants served Motion[s] to Dismiss the Complaint.

These motions and our opposition to these motions will be the next topic of discussion on this page.

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