2 Suicide Suits Conclude
Two more colleges have escaped being held responsible for campus suicides. A jury in Pennsylvania on Thursday found Allegheny College and a counselor at the institution not liable for the 2002 death of Charles Mahoney, a student who hanged himself after being depressed for several months. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology settled a longstanding suit filed by the parents of Julie Carpenter, a sophomore at the college in 2001 who died after taking cyanide.
In the Mahoney case, the former student’s parents, Charles and Deborah, had contended that the institution and a campus counselor, Jacquelyn Kondrot, had a responsibility to prevent their son’s suicide.
But after eight days of testimony, a jury of six men and six women took just over three hours to find both the institution and Kondrot not liable. When asked whether Mahoney was responsible for his own death, the jury’s response was "yes." A December 2005 ruling by the same court held that two Allegheny College deans had no “duty of care” to prevent the suicide of Mahoney.
“The family is pretty upset,” William D. Phillips, their lawyer, said Friday. “They are disturbed.” He added that he believed the trial was “very fair,” but that the family was still considering whether to appeal the case.
The parents believed that they should have been notified by the college regarding a series of depressed communications that their son had had with his counselor. However, the college maintained that doing so would have violated the student's privacy and that campus counselors had offered much support to Mahoney.
Phillips said that all colleges should consider “liberalizing their confidentiality policies” to allow counselors and others to call parents of depressed students. Allegheny’s policy currently does not require that procedure -- one that is discouraged by some health professionals who believe that students might be less likely to seek help if their parents become involved.
Phillips said that in the case of his own children, he would have “God damned wanted to know about it.”
Allegheny College released a statement after the verdict saying, "The suicide of Charles Mahoney IV was a tragedy for all involved, especially for his family. We continue to extend our deepest sympathies to them. We believe the jury reached the correct verdict.”
The MIT case similarly involved parents who believed that the institution and several of its administrators could have prevented the death of their daughter. In 2003, Julie Carpenter’s parents, Tim and Kay, sued the institution on wrongful death charges.
Just as the institution did in April in the closely watched Shin v. MIT case -- which involved the family of Elizabeth Shin, a student who lit herself on fire in her dorm room and died in 2000 -- it settled the case without disclosing many details.
“I am writing to inform you that Mr. Carpenter, MIT and the MIT administrators who were sued settled all claims against all defendants in the lawsuit to the parties’ satisfaction,” Phillip L. Clay, the chancellor of the institution, said in a statement released on Friday. “Under the settlement agreement, the parties agreed that all of the terms of the settlement are confidential and there will be no further comment from any of the parties.”
In a letter accompanying the statement, the Carpenter parents said that they are “pleased” that MIT has increased mental health resources and has focused on suicide prevention efforts.
After the Shin settlement, Denise Brehm, a spokeswoman for the university, noted that the university had hired additional mental health staff. Also, the MIT Medical Department is fully staffed by physicians, psychiatrists and other medical specialists who work in the on-campus facility.
In both the Shin case and the Carpenter case, some legal experts believed that MIT had a strong arguments to make that staff members and administrators should not be held liable in instances where a student commits suicide on campus.
In a 2000 case, Jain v. Iowa, a court has already held that non-therapist college administrators have no general duty of care to prevent student suicide.
Robb Jones, a general counsel for claims management with United Educators, a reciprocal risk retention group, said that it is important that colleges create programs to recognize at-risk students and prevent tragedies, such as in the Mahoney and Carpenter situations.
"The liability system, however, is not the correct place to air these intensely complex and personal situations,” said Jones. “We should be able to place our resources into education and prevention programs rather than into a system that tries to assign blame."
United Educators spent hundred of thousands of dollars on the defense of the Allegheny case. Jones said that the company is “prepared to do so in other cases that seek to place blame on colleges, universities, and schools in suicide cases.”