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Massachusetts Supreme Court Reviews University Student Wrongful Death Case

The Massachusetts Supreme Court recently determined there was no special relationship between a university and its student that would create a duty for the university to take action to prevent his suicide.  Without an obligation to act, the university was not liable for the student’s death.  In this Massachusetts wrongful death case (SJC-12329), the Supreme Court acknowledged that a special relationship could be formed between a university and its student, but it wasn’t present here.

This case originated with a graduate student who lived off campus.  He struggled taking tests and sought help from the program coordinator.  The coordinator referred him to the school’s disability services, but the student declined to use the disability accommodations.  Notes of the classroommeeting between the disability coordinator and the student show he declined to connect with the school’s medical division, believing it would not help.  The student was also referred to the university’s mental health services, where he also turned down assistance.  The student denied suicidal ideation. 

Later, the student admitted he had long suffered from depression and had made two prior suicide attempts in college.  The student denied having any active thoughts of suicide.  The student agreed to return at the beginning of the school year to address his test-taking issues and mental health.  However, during the summer, he expressed frustration at the course of action taken by the university with referrals to mental health services.  The student relayed to school officials he was actively under the care of a psychiatrist.  When he returned to school, he again acknowledged he had been treated for depression by a private physician.  After additional meetings, the school reached out to the private physician, who accepted the information provided and expressed concern without formally acknowledging he was treating the student. 

The faculty met regarding the student’s various needs, both academically and emotionally.  A plan was put in place for the student to take exams at a different pace and to consult with him regularly.  Concern was expressed at passing or not passing the student, for fear of an extreme reaction.  The student continued to have depressive episodes related to his school work and took his life.

Negligence actions have several elements that must be met for liability to arise.  The defendant must be under an obligation created by law to behave in a certain way.  If a defendant fails to use reasonable care, and the failure causes an injury or death, the defendant can be found liable.  The injured person or the estate is then entitled to economic and non-economic damages that must be proven with reasonable certainty.  In this lawsuit, the student’s family asserted the university did owe a duty to the student, and their failure to prevent his death supported a claim for punitive damages, pain and suffering, and breach of contract.

The Supreme Court reviewed the prior cases in which an entity has a special relationship that obliges it to use reasonable care to rescue, including preventing suicide.  The traditional example is either a jail or prison that is responsible for the prisoner in its custody.  The employees of a jail must prevent unreasonable risks of physical harm and provide first aid to anyone once it is known they are ill or injured.  In that specific situation, if the harm or injury is not known, no liability exists. 

A university’s relationship with a student is centered around the core mission of academics.  Special relationships may arise that obligate the university to provide additional care in services like sport programs, residence halls, and sponsored student activities.  The court noted that a college is not responsible for all aspects of a student’s life.  Universities are not insurers of the safety of their students.  A special relationship and a duty to prevent a suicide is created when the university has actual knowledge of a student’s suicide attempt while enrolled at the school, or of a student’s stated plans to commit suicide.  It is not a generalized duty to prevent suicide, but a duty created based on whether the self-inflicted death was foreseeable.  An expression by a student of an intent to commit suicide must be more than a suicidal ideation for a special duty to exist.  The Supreme Court determined no duty was formed in the case at hand, and it affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ action.

The Massachusetts personal injury attorneys at Karsner and Meehan are seasoned litigators who will aggressively pursue all avenues of legal relief.  Civil law provides opportunities to hold defendants accountable, and we will work tirelessly to obtain the damages that should be provided to the estate. Call today at 508-822-6600 for a free, confidential consultation.

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Massachusetts Appeals Court Allows Estate to Pursue Wrongful Death Medical Malpractice Action, February 5, 2018, Massachusetts Injury Lawyers Blog