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Court Denies Harvard’s Motion to Dismiss 2018 Wrongful Death Suit

University Hall
University Hall in Harvard Yard.

A 2018 wrongful death lawsuit against Harvard and several of its employees will proceed after Middlesex County Superior Court ruled against Harvard’s motions to dismiss Monday.

The suit alleges the University and some of its employees were negligent in their care of an undergraduate, Luke Z. Tang ’18, who died by suicide on campus in 2015. Each of the defendants denied culpability or asked to dismiss the case in motions filed in January.

Superior Court Judge Michael D. Ricciuti ’84 refused those motions and wrote in a memo Monday that Harvard’s interpretation of previous case law was “erroneous” and that the suit would be allowed to continue.

Harvard previously argued that a 2018 decision in another case — Nguyen v. MIT, involving the suicide of a graduate student — demonstrates that the University fulfilled its legal duties by initiating suicide prevention protocols in Luke Tang’s case. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court determined in Nguyen v. MIT that universities must take “reasonable measures” to prevent student suicides in certain circumstances.

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Ricciuti rejected that part of Harvard’s argument Monday.

“Harvard’s argument to dismiss this case reduces Nguyen to a check-box, and that once a university checks one of three boxes — a protocol, or if there is none, clinical care, or if that is refused, reaching an emergency contact — its duty ends regardless of how well or poorly the university fulfills its duty,” he wrote in the Monday memo. “That interpretation cannot be correct.”

Wendell W. Tang, Luke Tang’s father, filed the suit on behalf of his son on Sept. 11, 2018 arguing that the University and its employees’ “negligence and carelessness” directly resulted in Luke Tang’s death. The case implicates the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — as well as residential dean Catherine R. Shapiro, Lowell House Resident Dean Caitlin Casey, Harvard University Health Services mental health counselor Melanie G. Northrop, and HUHS psychiatrist David W. Abramson.

The original complaint accused each defendant of negligence and argued they were responsible for damages of at least $20 million.

The complaint stated that the College sent Luke Tang to McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. for treatment after a first on-campus suicide attempt in April 2015. Ahead of his return to campus, administrators required Luke Tang to agree to a “contract” laying out terms — including that he receive regular counseling — during his time at the College.

After failing to schedule follow-up appointments with a therapist, Luke Tang left campus for the summer and then returned in August. A month later, he died by suicide in Lowell House after going months without counseling, according to the complaint.

The complaint alleged that Harvard and its employees failed to uphold the contract — and consequently are culpable for Luke Tang’s death — by not ensuring that he received treatment.

University spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment directly on the case, citing its pending status.

“While we will not comment on ongoing litigation, Harvard is committed to supporting all of our students and works to connect students who are experiencing difficulties with mental health services and resources,” Dane wrote in an email Thursday.

The case is scheduled for an October 2020 status review, after the conclusion of a discovery period. A trial and decision are scheduled for 2021, if the suit proceeds to that stage.

—Staff writer Delano R. Franklin can be reached at delano.franklin@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @delanofranklin_.

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