Suicide Lawsuit Dismissed Against Harvard
Harvard was one of two universities recently sued over a high-profile suicide of one of their students. The Harvard lawsuit involved a student who had previously attempted suicide. According to the lawsuit, following the attempt, Harvard placed the student on probation and required him to sign a contract stating that if he had any suicidal ideation, he was required to seek out a mental health professional. This effort was widely panned as an attempt by the university to meet the bare minimum of effort required, and perhaps even placing additional pressure on the student, worsening his situation. Eventually, the student did, unfortunately, kill himself and Harvard was forced to explain what efforts they took in caring for the student.
Suicide lawsuits remain exceedingly rare. However, universities are required to act on credible intelligence that a student is a threat to themselves. The university did act, but the plaintiff claimed the reaction was woefully deficient and potentially negligent.
The family was not able to sufficiently support their allegations and the lawsuit was ultimately dismissed for failure to state an actionable claim.
Universities officials are not medical doctors
Part of the problem here, and in cases like this one, is that the average person isn’t trained to make a decision on whether or not someone is suicidal or how to handle an individual who has a prior suicide attempt. In this case, the university did try to intervene, but the intervention was unsuccessful and the boy died.
Questions as to whether the intervention was appropriate is beyond the purview of an administrator’s expertise. The administrator is not a doctor.
Ultimately, you would hope the university would have a doctor-approved policy in place for dealing with suicidal students. Placing the student on a contract sounds more like a legal defense than an effort to save his life. But even that may not be actionable under the law.
Who is liable for this death?
Claims against the university have been dismissed. Claims against the student’s case manager are moving forward. A case manager does have that expanded duty of care as a medical professional to make decisions as to the emotional health of the student. It remains unclear what specific allegations are being made against the case worker.
The case against the university is different. There is a high standard to prove a university is liable for a suicide. A previous suicide attempt or an expression of suicidal ideation are enough, however, to warrant intervention. In this case, the strategy may not have been great, but they did expend some effort. The administrators are not responsible for the quality of that effort. The case manager, however, might be.
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