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Judge Dismisses Claims Against Harvard in Wrongful Death Lawsuit Over 2015 Student Suicide

A Middlesex Superior Court judge dismissed claims against Harvard in a wrongful death lawsuit following the suicide of Luke Z. Tang '18.
A Middlesex Superior Court judge dismissed claims against Harvard in a wrongful death lawsuit following the suicide of Luke Z. Tang '18. By Leah J. Teichholtz
By J. Sellers Hill and Nia L. Orakwue, Crimson Staff Writers

If you or someone you know needs help at Harvard, contact Counseling and Mental Health Services at (617) 495-2042 or the Harvard University Police Department at (617) 495-1212. Several peer counseling groups offer confidential peer conversations. Learn more here.

You can contact a University Chaplain to speak one-on-one at chaplains@harvard.edu or here.

You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

A Middlesex County Superior Court judge last month dismissed claims against Harvard and two residential deans in a wrongful death lawsuit which alleges the defendants were negligent in the care of Luke Z. Tang ’18, an undergraduate who died by suicide in 2015.

The dismissal follows a November hearing where attorneys for Harvard argued for a ruling to dismiss without trial, claiming the defendants upheld their duty of care to Tang. David W. Heinlein, the attorney representing Tang’s family, said he plans to appeal the decision, which came on Dec. 20.

Filed in 2018 by Tang’s father, the complaint accuses the defendants — Harvard, Senior Resident Dean Catherine R. Shapiro, former Lowell House Resident Dean Caitlin M. Casey ’03, and Counseling and Mental Health Service employee Melanie G. Northrop — of “negligence and carelessness” resulting in Tang’s death.

In a 22-page document, Superior Court Judge Brent A. Tingle outlined his decision to dismiss the suit against Harvard, Shapiro, and Casey, writing that the parties did satisfy their duty of care to Tang following an initial suicide attempt in spring 2015.

“This limited duty is based on the Court’s recognition that non-clinicians such as Shapiro and Casey are poorly situated to probe or discern suicidal intentions that are not expressly evident,” Tingle wrote. “The position advanced by Dr. Tang would essentially require non-clinicians like Shapiro and Casey to identify acute suicidal intentions even where the student expressly denies being suicidal.”

Tingle added that the Tang family’s legal argument would require universities to continually monitor students and their risk for suicide.

“This is directly contrary to the Court’s stated goal of respecting the privacy, autonomy, and desire of an adult student to seek help for mental health issues,” Tingle wrote.

Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on the dismissal.

In a November decision, Tingle allowed claims against Northrop, who served as Tang’s case manager, to proceed. If not settled out of court, her case will go to a jury trial.

Much of the case against Harvard and its employees centers around precedent established in Nguyen v. MIT — a 2018 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling concerning a graduate student who died by suicide on MIT’s campus in 2009.

In that decision, a judge found MIT was not liable for the death of the student and outlined specific circumstances that must exist for a university to be held legally responsible. Those circumstances include a student informing university officials of suicidal ideation or a recent suicide attempt.

The suit also argued that the College and Shapiro, specifically, assumed an additional, voluntary duty of care to Tang when they required him to remain in outpatient therapy following his suicide attempt.

In his decision, Tingle rejected the plaintiff’s line of reasoning.

“A voluntary duty of the type Dr. Tang advocates for in this case is not grounded in the typical expectations of a college or university to its students,” he wrote.

Heinlein said he was “extremely disappointed” by the decision to dismiss in a Thursday interview.

“I don’t believe that the trial judge applied the correct standard in reaching his decision,” Heinlein said.

Heinlein added that he would ask the Middlesex Superior Court to enter a final judgment against Harvard, Casey, and Shapiro before beginning the appeal process.

In his decision, Tingle also described what he called “serious policy implications” of the suit’s legal position. He wrote that if universities took on an additional duty after requiring a student to get therapy after a suicide attempt, the institutions may instead opt to dismiss the student or make no effort to require treatment for fear of future liability.

Heinlein said he was “perfectly fine” with schools dismissing students after suicide attempts, but disagreed with Tingle’s evaluation of the case’s potential implications.

“I do not believe that anybody anywhere, particularly people that are working at CAMHS or in health services, are going to say, ‘We’re not going to help one of our students, because if he commits suicide in the future, we might get sued,’” Heinlein said. “I just find that to be offensive.”

The timeline for an appeal is uncertain, Heinlein added.

—Staff writer J. Sellers Hill can be reached at sellers.hill@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @SellersHill.

—Staff writer Nia L. Orakwue can be reached at nia.orakwue@thecrimson.com.

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