Judge backs family in MIT suicide case

August 12, 2005

A US judge has ruled that a university can be held responsible for a student's suicide, in what could be a landmark decision.

Judge Christine McEvoy ordered that the parents of a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who committed suicide can proceed with their $ million (£15 million) lawsuit against MIT psychiatrists and administrators, whom they blame, in part, for failing to prevent their daughter's death.

Elizabeth Shin set herself on fire in her room on the MIT campus in 2000. Her parents contend that the university knew that she had attempted suicide before by taking an overdose of painkillers and that it was likely she might try again.

The judge, in allowing the case to proceed, agreed. She said that Ms Shin's housemaster and a dean involved in her case "could reasonably foresee that Elizabeth would hurt herself without proper supervision".

US higher education officials said the ruling went too far in allowing universities to be sued for the behaviour of their students. The case alleges that four university psychiatrists, the housemaster and the dean could have prevented Ms Shin's suicide. Those charges will now go before a jury.

University documents show that on the day Ms Shin set herself on fire, the psychiatrists and administrators were meeting to discuss her case, after two students reported hearing her say that she intended to kill herself imminently.

Judge McEvoy wrote that there was sufficient evidence to suggest that MIT administrators might be found "grossly negligent" for having failed to act more quickly. In a statement, MIT says Ms Shin's death "was not the fault of MIT or anyone who works at MIT". It has vowed to fight the lawsuit.

Just over 1,000 suicides a year are reported on US university campuses. Several high-profile cases have occurred at MIT, including one in which a student took cyanide in 2001. Her family is suing the institute, which it blames for failing to stop another student from harassing their daughter.

Previous judicial decisions have tended not to find universities responsible for student suicides.

In a separate case, a court ruled that a university owed no duty to a student to keep him from committing suicide and did not breach any legally recognised duty by failing to notify his parents that he had tried to kill himself before.

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