Settlement in MIT Suicide Suit

Experts had hoped that legal fight would offer guidance for other colleges on liability for students with serious mental health problems.
April 4, 2006

Everyone was watching. But administrators who hoped to gain clarity from one family's suit against employees of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in regard to how to balance concerns over liability issues with concerns for students’ mental health were left to wait for another day -- and, almost certainly, another lawsuit. 

On Monday, MIT and the family of Elizabeth Shin, a student who lit herself on fire in her dorm room and died in 2000, announced that they had reached a confidential agreement to resolve a lawsuit the family had filed against two student life staff members. The family also agreed not to proceed with a lawsuit against four psychiatrists at the institution, according to MIT officials.

"We know there is nothing that can erase the Shin family's pain from losing their daughter," MIT Chancellor Phillip L. Clay said in a prepared statement. "Elizabeth Shin's death was a tragedy for her family, her friends and all those at MIT who tried to help her. This settlement will spare all of them the further emotional distress of a trial."

"We appreciate MIT's willingness to spare our family the ordeal of a trial and have come to understand that our daughter's death was likely a tragic accident,” Cho Hyun Shin, the father of Elizabeth Shin, said in the statement. “This agreement will allow us to move forward in the healing process."

Denise Brehm, a spokeswoman for the university, explained that MIT had always considered Shin’s death an accident and that the family, in settling the case, agreed. Also as part of the settlement, according to MIT officials, the amount of the payment “must be kept confidential at the request of the Shin family.” Members of the Shin family and their lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Shin family initially filed a $27.65 million wrongful death lawsuit suit against MIT in 2002, charging that its counseling service had failed to take their daughter’s depressed situation seriously. Ultimately, MIT was cleared of wrongdoing, but separate suits against several individual MIT staff members continued until the settlement was announced.

Some legal experts believed that MIT had a strong case to argue that staff members and administrators should not necessarily be held liable in instances where a student commits suicide on campus. Such a legal win might have reduced the pressure that many colleges now say they feel to err on the side of getting students home, rather than helping them on campus -- a strategy that many mental health experts question.

Sheldon Steinbach, vice president and general counsel of the American Council on Education, said Monday that this instance is evidence that colleges often settle rather than fight -- even when they're in the right.

“This is part and parcel of the increasing cost to American higher education in a litigious 21st century environment," said Steinbach. “It's economically beneficial to settle a claim rather than litigate it, even when right justice is on your side." Officials with the American Council on Education said in a recent amicus brief in support of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that they were worried that court and political actions could discourage colleges from helping students facing psychological problems.

Others weren’t so sure that the Shin litigation held all that much weight, settlement or not. Gary Pavela, director of judicial programs at the University of Maryland at College Park, said that although the settlement means that there will be no new appellate ruling on administrators' duty of care to prevent student suicide, there was already a viable precedent in place. The 2000 Jain v. Iowa case, for instance, held that non-therapist college administrators have no general duty of care to prevent student suicide.

Pavela believes that “a steady drumbeat of arguments and counter-arguments coming out of protracted litigation in the Shin case would have contributed to an already over-heated climate of risk aversion in this area.”

“With Jain still the most viable precedent, college administrators can focus on best practices in preventing student suicide without resorting to the hair trigger response of removing students who make any suicidal gesture,” said Pavela. “Our primary job is to educate students, not devise creative ways to dismiss them.” 

Karen Bower, a lawyer with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health, said, too, that the unique facts of the case -- as in most cases -- would have prevented it from being used as a precedent in most other situations. “Yes, the law remains as unsettled as it was when the Shin case was filed,” said Bower. “But I don’t think it mattered who prevailed as long as any administrator continues to make policies that are based on stereotypes and are prejudiced against students with mental health needs.”

Bower currently represents Jordan Nott, a former student at George Washington University, who claims he was forced to leave the institution and threatened with criminal prosecution after he sought help for depression at the university’s counseling center.

“Schools need to adopt policies that support students and enable them to be successful in an educational environment,” said Bower.  “Regardless of the Shin litigation, prejudice and fear are behind policies that stigmatize students.”

Jaquie Resnick, who directs the University of Florida’s counseling center and has closely followed the Shin case, said that she believes the existence of the litigation has forced many campuses to respond to student mental health issues in positive ways. “Shin put a spotlight on how colleges and universities carry out policies for prevention and the checks and balances necessary to promote care,” said Resnick. 

Since the Shin case was first filed, MIT has made a number of enhancements to the mental health services it provides to students, according to officials with the institution. “Preventive care is now a very high priority, focusing on the treatment of emotional stress and promotion of resilience,” said Brehm. Among other developments, the university has hired additional mental health staff who are fluent in languages other than English and who help mirror the diversity of the student body. In addition, the MIT Medical Department is fully staffed by physicians, psychiatrists and other medical specialists who work in the on-campus facility.

“I don’t think that administrative attempts to mitigate liability issues will ever be the source of positive prevention strategies,” said Resnick. “The majority of campuses aren’t looking toward mandatory disciplinary approaches. All campuses do not want to create a chilly climate for students.

“We’re aware that it’s unlikely that we can prevent all suicides,” added Resnick. “But we can decrease it and do a better job of reaching our troubled students. The Shin case serves as a reminder that we must work together to do a better job at promoting mental health awareness.”

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