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Court Discusses Duty of Massachusetts Universities to Prevent Student Suicide

In Massachusetts, whether a party has a duty to prevent harm depends, in part, on the relationship between the injured person and the party, but in other instances, the duty arises out of a party’s knowledge of the risk of harm. For example, universities do not have a general duty to protect students from self-harm. A university may have a duty, however, to prevent a student from committing suicide in certain instances. Recently, the Superior Court of Massachusetts elucidated when a university may be deemed negligent for failing to prevent a student from committing suicide. If you or your loved one suffered harm because of the negligent acts or failure to act of another party, it is advisable to speak with an experienced Massachusetts personal injury attorney regarding your potential causes of action.

Factual Background

Allegedly, the plaintiff’s decedent was enrolled at the defendant university in Boston. In April of his freshman year, he attempted suicide. The defendant university learned of the decedent’s attempt and transferred him to a hospital. After he was discharged, he met with the defendant university employee about his treatment going forward. The decedent then entered into a contract with the Dean of Freshman Students, which stated that the decedent would be permitted to remain on campus if he engaged in treatment. The decedent met with the defendant university employee on two occasions, where he expressed skepticism over the treatment.  He was not in treatment from May to September, however. In September, the decedent committed suicide.

It is reported that the decedent’s father filed a lawsuit against the university and several individuals employed by the university, asserting that they had a duty to take measures to prevent the decedent from committing self-harm and that the duty was breached. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss. Upon review, the court denied the motion.

Duties Imposed on Universities with Regard to Student Suicide

The court stated that pursuant to recent Massachusetts case law, a university is deemed to have a special relationship with a student and a corresponding duty to prevent the student from committing suicide in certain circumstances. Specifically, when a university has actual knowledge that a student attempted suicide while enrolled or shortly before enrollment, or that the student has discussed an intent or plans to commit suicide, the university has an obligation to take steps that are reasonable under the circumstances to prevent the student from harming his or her self.

The court clarified that universities do not have a generalized duty to prevent self-harm. Specifically, the duty does not arise when a student does not state his or her intention to commit suicide or when a student makes generalized statements regarding suicide. When the duty is present, reasonable measures the university must take include initiating a suicide prevention protocol, if one exists, or notifying appropriate medical professionals. If care is refused, the student’s emergency contacts must be notified.

In the subject case, the court found that the defendant university failed to follow through with its established protocol or to take steps otherwise to prevent the decedent’s harm. As such, the court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

Speak with a Skillful Personal Injury Attorney

If you or someone you love were injured by the careless acts of a person or entity, you should speak with a skillful Massachusetts personal injury attorney to discuss what damages you may be able to recover for your harm. The trusted personal injury attorneys of Karsner & Meehan will fight diligently on your behalf to help you pursue any compensation you may be owed. You can reach us at 508-822-6600 or via our online form to schedule a consultation.