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The family of Luke Z. Tang ’18, a Harvard undergraduate who died by suicide in 2015, has appealed the December dismissal of a wrongful death lawsuit which alleges the University and two residential deans were negligent in their care of Tang.
Filed in 2018 by Tang’s father, the complaint accuses the defendants — Harvard itself, Senior Resident Dean Catherine R. Shapiro, former Lowell House Resident Dean Caitlin M. Casey ’03, and Counseling and Mental Health Services employee Melanie G. Northrop — of “negligence and carelessness” resulting in Tang’s death.
Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Brent A. Tingle heard the case on Nov. 1. Last month, he dismissed claims against Harvard, Shapiro, and Casey, writing that the parties sufficiently satisfied their duty of care to Tang following an initial suicide attempt in spring 2015.
The appeal, which was filed in the Massachusetts Appeals Court on Jan. 19, argues that because Harvard and its deans were aware of Tang’s previous suicide attempt, they carried an “affirmative duty” to Tang which did not cease until a medical professional declared he was no longer at risk of suicide. The appeal argues the court “erroneously made a factual finding” that Harvard did not owe Tang care.
“The non-clinician has an affirmative duty to make sure the at-risk student is receiving the ‘comprehensive coordinated’ care he/she needs regardless of the student’s words or actions,” the filing reads.
According to the filing, the College — by requiring Tang to enter into a “care contract” and providing mental health services through HUHS — “assumed a duty of reasonable care” to Tang. This duty renders Harvard liable for harm due to a failure to provide this care for Tang, it claims.
“No one at Harvard did anything affirmatively to make sure Luke was receiving the treatment it knew he needed and required him to have,” the filing reads.
David W. Heinlein, the attorney representing Tang’s family in the suit, could not be immediately reached for comment following the appeal.
Both the original complaints and arguments made in the appeal by Tang’s family are built on precedent originating from Nguyen v. MIT, a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court case concerning a student suicide on MIT’s campus in 2009.
The ruling in that case established specific conditions in which universities can be held legally responsible for a student’s suicide, including the student informing university officials of suicidal ideation or past suicide attempts.
Heinlein’s appeal explicitly references the precedent set in Nguyen v. MIT.
“Despite the controlling mandate of Nguyen, and the factors of this case which indisputably give rise to a duty of case under it, the Superior Court — in an almost unheard-of fashion given the applicable standard of review — granted summary judgment to the defendants on the issue of breach of duty — an element of the claim that must be considered by the jury,” the appeal reads.
The filing also argues that the University still owed a duty of care to Tang even after he “continually denied” to officials that he was still suicidal.
“One known suicide attempt is enough to trigger the affirmative duty,” the filing reads. “What is absent from the record is any evidence that a medical professional opined that Luke was no longer at risk of death by suicide or that Luke no longer required counseling.”
Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on the appeal.
In November 2022, Tingle allowed claims in the suit against CAMHS employee Northrop, who served as Tang’s case manager after his suicide attempt, to proceed. Her case will go to a jury trial if it is not settled out of court.
—Staff writer J. Sellers Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SellersHill.
—Staff writer Nia L. Orakwue can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @nia_orakwue.