“…i have no real friends. i have no one up here. everyone voices discontent, but no one will rally when it counts. i am sad and angry and alone, alone, alone, alone…”
Those were some of the last words that Charles Mahoney, then a junior at Pennsylvania's Allegheny College, e-mailed to his counselor before he hanged himself in his fraternity house in 2002.
Now, Mahoney’s parents, Charles and Deborah, are waging a legal battle against the institution, contending that health officials there -- specifically, his counselor, Jacquelyn Kondrot -- had a responsibility to prevent their son’s suicide.
Ever since the eye-popping $27.65 million Shin v. MIT case was filed in 2002, administrators and health officials have been keeping a close watch for cases that could offer guidance in navigating the tricky terrain related to campus suicide. That case, which centered on a liability-based argument against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the parents of a student who lit herself on fire in her dorm room and died in 2000, was settled out of court earlier this year .
Despite the emotionally charged allegations in the Mahoney case, legal experts say it is unlikely to set any precedents for institutions' liability in such situations.
Karen Bower, a lawyer for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health, said that historically, individuals are usually held liable when there is a “custodial relationship” between student and counselor, which did not exist in this instance. That kind of relationship would exist if a student signed a document indicating that the practitioner was responsible for making his or her decisions.
Another way for an individual to be held liable, Bower said, would be if there was a “special relationship” between patient and practitioner and “harm was reasonably foreseeable.” Court documents indicate the existence of “expert reports” that allege negligence on the part of Kondrot.
The Mahoney parents and Kondrot could not be reached for comment on Monday, and lawyers for both the plaintiffs and the defendants have been placed under a gag order by the judge in the case.
Dave McInally, vice president for finance and planning at Allegheny, said that the quality of care Mahoney received “was very high.” He added that the institution’s lawyers will highlight in court several instances in which the college tried to help the suffering student.
Allegheny College does not require students to sign a waiver to disclose medical records, so officials say that the college was prohibited by the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act from sharing Mahoney’s records with his parents. The law prohibits colleges from releasing information about a student without the permission of the student himself or herself.
A December 2005 ruling by the same court that is hearing the current case held that two Allegheny College deans had no “duty of care” to prevent the suicide of Mahoney.
McInally said that the earlier ruling reduced the liability implications for the institution. “That transformed this case into something closer to a medical malpractice case,” he said. “The primary issues in question have to do with the [quality of medical health care provided].”
Bower said that because the case has been significantly narrowed, it is “unlikely that there will be a ‘duty of care’ finding for universities to prevent student suicides.”