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Jury Finds CAMHS Employee Melanie Northrop Not Negligent in 2015 Student Suicide

CAMHS employee Melanie G. Northrop was found not responsible in a wrongful death lawsuit over the death of Luke Z. Tang '18.
CAMHS employee Melanie G. Northrop was found not responsible in a wrongful death lawsuit over the death of Luke Z. Tang '18. By Michelle N. Amponsah
By Michelle N. Amponsah and Joyce E. Kim, Crimson Staff Writers

Melanie G. Northrop, a Harvard Counseling and Mental Health Services employee who served as the case manager for Luke Z. Tang ’18, was found not culpable of “negligence and carelessness” in her care for Tang, a student who died by suicide in 2015.

The jury reached its verdict Tuesday afternoon after more than 10 hours of deliberations. To reach the decision, at least 10 out of the 12 jurors had to agree that Northrop fulfilled her responsibilities to Tang.

The verdict included eight questions, the first of which asked whether Northrop was negligent in her case management of Tang, as well as instructions to proceed to sign and submit the verdict for the defendant.

While the burden of proof required of the plaintiff in a civil case is lower than that of a criminal case, the jury still ruled in favor of Northrop.

The verdict followed eight days of witness testimonies — which included testimony from Tang’s parents, Northrop, and mental health professionals at McLean Hospital who interacted with Tang.

The trial over the wrongful death lawsuit began on April 9 at the Middlesex Superior Courthouse in Woburn, Mass.

Northrop — who was responsible for coordinating Tang’s mental health treatment and resources — first met with Tang after he was discharged from McLean Hospital following his initial suicide attempt in April 2015.

Tang told Northrop during the meeting that he planned to spend the summer in China before returning to Harvard for the fall semester. Northrop told Tang that he needed to continue his treatment during his time in China, according to the original lawsuit.

On May 1, Tang signed a contract with the College outlining the terms of his continued enrollment at Harvard. The terms stipulated that Tang was expected to actively participate in his treatment plan, remain on any prescribed medications, and turn to medical professionals in the event of distress.

The lawsuit accused Northrop of helping write a contract which “failed to provide reasonable safety” for Tang, failing to enforce the contract’s terms, and failing to include provisions requiring Tang to seek treatment when he returned to campus.

“Tang had no mental health counseling between May 16, 2015 and September 12, 2015,” the complaint alleges.

During closing arguments Monday, Northrop’s attorneys — William J. Dailey III and Victoria C. Goetz — argued that Tang “made a choice not to get treatment.”

However, attorneys for the estate of Tang — Michael J. Heineman and David W. Heinlein — maintained that Northrop’s negligence caused Tang’s death and asked the jury to award Tang’s parents a total of $22 million in damages.

Lawyers for either party could not be reached for a request for comment on Wednesday.

The judgment on the jury verdict states that “the above plaintiff(s) take nothing, that the action be dismissed on the merits, and that the defendant(s) named above will not recover statutory costs.”

Tuesday’s verdict comes after six years of litigation over the wrongful death lawsuit, which began in 2018 when Tang’s father, Wendell Tang, filed suit.

The lawsuit alleged that Harvard and several of its employees — including Northrop, Senior Resident Dean Catherine R. Shapiro, and former Lowell House Resident Dean Caitlin M. Casey ’03 — were negligent in their care for Tang after he initially attempted suicide in April 2015.

Massachusetts Superior Court judge Brent A. Tingle allowed the suit to move forward against Northrop in November 2022 after Harvard’s lawyers argued for a ruling without trial.

Tingle dismissed the claims against the other defendants — Harvard, Shapiro, and Casey — in December 2022, writing that they sufficiently satisfied their duty of care to Tang. In January 2023, Tang’s family appealed the dismissal.

While Tang’s parents have 30 days to appeal the verdict, it is unclear if they will choose to do so.

—Staff writer Michelle N. Amponsah can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @mnamponsah.

—Staff writer Joyce E. Kim can be reached at Follow her on X at @joycekim324.

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