Facing a lawsuit faulting the University and Lowell House administrators for the death of a 21-year-old man on Harvard’s campus in 2009, Harvard said in a legal filing last week that it cannot be blamed for the death of a non-student drug dealer who was killed during a transaction in Kirkland House.
Three years after the Kirkland shooting, the murder victim’s mother, B. Denise Cosby, filed a wrongful death suit in May claiming that the death of her son, Justin D. C. D. Cosby, was precipitated by Harvard’s negligence in allowing a student’s boyfriend to live in Lowell House for months. The suit was filed against the University and three of its employees—Lowell Co-House Masters Dorothy A. Austin and Diana L. Eck, and chemistry and chemical biology lecturer Ryan M. Spoering, who was resident dean of Lowell when the shooting occurred in May 2009.
Jabrai Jordan Copney, who was convicted of the murder of Cosby in criminal court last year, had been living with his girlfriend Brittany J. Smith—then a Harvard senior in Lowell—for most of the academic year.
Witnesses in Copney’s trial last year said that the shooting occurred when Copney, joined by two other men from New York, attempted to steal drugs from Cosby, who sold marijuana to Harvard students. Copney and the two other men invited Cosby into the basement of Kirkland’s J-entryway, where they planned to steal marijuana from him at gunpoint, according to testimony. Prosecutors and witnesses said Copney shot Cosby when Cosby refused to hand over the drugs and tried to flee the entryway.
When Cosby’s mother filed the suit claiming that Harvard bore some of the responsibility for her son’s death, the University indicated that it would fight the suit, a promise it made good on with a motion to dismiss the case filed on Sept. 17.
Harvard’s motion for dismissal, which will be heard in Middlesex Superior Court at a hearing on Dec. 19, offers a three-pronged rebuttal to the wrongful death suit.
First, it states that the University and the three individual defendants “did not owe a duty of reasonable care to protect Cosby.”
An accompanying memorandum filed by Harvard expanded on this first point, listing many reasons Harvard did not have a responsibility to Cosby: their roles as property owner or employees of the property owner entailed no obligation to protect Cosby from a criminal; they had no “special relationship” with him; the University’s policies did not require them to protect people other than University affiliates; and they could not protect Cosby from “his own voluntary, dangerous conduct.”
In its second line of argument, the motion argues that the University and the individual defendants took no actions that “proximately caused the men to murder Cosby.” The memorandum adds that there is no evidence to suggest that Harvard “proximately caused Copney to plan an armed robbery and then murder Cosby in cold blood.”
Third, the motion says that even if Harvard owed Cosby a duty of reasonable care, the suit still should not stand “because Cosby’s criminal conduct was a direct contributing cause of his own death.” The memorandum adds, “When Cosby came to campus, his sole purpose was to commit a crime, and when he was shot in Kirkland House, he was engaged in a serious felony.”
Isaac H. Peres, one of Denise Cosby’s lawyers, said in a phone interview on Monday that he believes his client’s civil suit has merit and he hopes the judge will deny Harvard’s motion.
“We believe that the violation of Harvard's rules regarding having strangers, non-students, staying in the dorm overnight creates a security risk,” Peres said. “Having someone who's not a student staying overnight creates a foreseeable risk of harm to others to students and non-students alike.”
Harvard Director of News and Media Relations Kevin Galvin reiterated the position in an emailed statement that the University bears no responsibility for the shooting.
“We recognize that the Cosby family has suffered a heart-rending loss, but, as we said when the suit was filed, there is no basis in law or fact to hold the University accountable for Justin Cosby’s death,” he wrote.
Spoering declined to comment on the suit, and Austin and Eck did not respond to requests for comment.
—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: Sept. 27
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Harvard claimed in a memorandum not to have had a responsibility to protect Copney, referring to Jabrai Jordan Copney. In fact, the memorandum said that Harvard was not responsible for protecting Justin D. C. D. Cosby, a Cambridge resident who was killed by Copney and two associates in Kirkland House in May 2009.