Professors and staff members at Massachusetts colleges can be sued if they fail to act after learning a student was considering suicide, according to a ruling issued Monday by the state’s highest court that for the first time outlines the institutions’ legal duty to prevent students from killing themselves.
While the decision created new liability for colleges and universities, Justice Scott L. Kafker’s ruling did not eliminate all legal protections for schools, professors, and support staff.
“It is definitely not a generalized duty to prevent suicide,” Kafker wrote. “Nonclinicians are also not expected to discern suicidal tendencies where the student has not stated his or her plans or intentions to commit suicide.”
But the Supreme Judicial Court ruled unanimously that “nonclinicians” such as professors and deans can be held liable after a student’s death if the college knew the student had previously attempted suicide while enrolled at the school or shortly before being accepted or had spoken of his or her plans and provided details about what method would be used.
In those situations, professors and staff must take action because “suicide is sufficiently foreseeable . . . even for university nonclinicians without medical training,’’ Kafker wrote.
The decision appears to be the first by an appeals court in any state to define a very limited set of circumstances in which professors and administrators must respond to prevent student suicide or face liability, said Gary Pavela, an attorney and author of a book about college student suicides.
“It says to college administrators, basically, ‘Don’t panic,’ ” Pavela said. “It’s very narrowly limited and if you encounter the facts that we describe – this explicit, imminent threat – then here’s what you should do.”
The ruling came as the court dismissed a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the family of Han Duy Nguyen, a 25-year-old graduate student at the Sloan School of Management who jumped to his death in 2009, 11 minutes after being read the “riot act” by an MIT professor upset about Nguyen’s rude behavior toward colleagues.
The high court ruled that Nguyen’s case did not meet the limited set of circumstances in which colleges can be held liable because MIT was never directly warned that Nguyen was suicidal. Nguyen, the court said, refused to let MIT’s mental health professionals participate in his care.
Instead, he saw a series of private psychiatrists and mental health professionals, including a Massachusetts General Hospital doctor who saw him some 40 times and concluded that, while Nguyen spoke of suicide, he did not deem him at immediate risk of killing himself, records show.
“Nguyen never communicated by words or actions to any MIT employee that he had stated plans or intentions to commit suicide,’’ Kafker wrote. “He also was a twenty-five year old adult graduate student living off campus, not a young student living in a campus dormitory under daily observation.”
The Nguyen family attorney, Jeffrey S. Beeler, expressed disappointment at the ruling and noted that the family has been waging its legal fight with MIT for seven years. Beeler praised the court, however, for finding that, in some circumstances, colleges must help suicidal students.
“There can be little doubt that the rule of the Nguyen case will save student lives going forward,’’ Beeler said. “Contrary to the position of [higher education institutions] . . . the court has explicitly found that they do owe a duty of care to their students at risk of suicide.”
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology said in a statement that Nguyen’s death “was a tragedy, and the MIT community mourns his passing.”
“The court unanimously affirmed that MIT, its faculty, and its staff were not liable for Mr. Nguyen’s untimely death, although the decision found that a university may owe a limited duty of reasonable care to protect its students from self-harm in certain narrow circumstances,” MIT said. “The well-being of our students is of paramount importance to the institute: MIT already offers a robust network of student support resources and services, including comprehensive mental health counseling, and continually considers ways to enhance those resources.”
The court said colleges and their employees can protect themselves from lawsuits if they follow their campus “suicide protocol” — for example, by contacting mental health services — after they are warned, in some fashion, that a student is actively suicidal.
MIT and 18 other colleges and universities, including Harvard, had urged the court to make clear that professors and staff cannot realistically prevent students from killing themselves, especially when students do not share their mental health issues with the college.
Jonathan A. Karon, president of the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys, said the ruling did not go as far as his organization would have liked in allowing families to sue. But he said the court still set an important precedent.
“Overall, I’m encouraged because they recognize, for the first time, that the college has a special relationship with their students, under certain circumstances, to take reasonable measures to protect them from suicide,” Karon said.John R. Ellement can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe. Michael Levenson can be reached email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.