Harvard Faces Wrongful Death Lawsuit Over 2015 Student Suicide
By Delano R. Franklin
November 30, 2018
The student’s father, Wendell W. Tang, filed the suit in the Middlesex County Superior Court on Sept. 11, one day shy of the three-year anniversary of his son’s death. The complaint names the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — as well as residential dean Catherine R. Shapiro, Lowell House Resident Dean Caitlin Casey, Harvard University Health Services mental health counselor Melanie G. Northrop, and HUHS psychiatrist David W. Abramson as defendants.
The complaint accuses each of the defendants of “negligence and carelessness” that resulted in Luke Tang’s death and argues the defendants are responsible for damages amounting to at least $20 million.
“As a direct and proximate result of Harvard’s negligence and carelessness, the Plaintiff’s decedent was caused severe conscious physical and mental pain and suffering and further, the Plaintiff’s decedent was caused to commit suicide,” the complaint reads.
The lawsuit filing outlines Luke Tang’s struggle with suicidal ideation, his suicide attempt during his freshman year at Harvard, and the consultation he received from Harvard officials following his return to campus. The complaint alleges Luke Tang entered into a contract prepared by Shapiro, Northrop, and Abramson shortly after his freshman year suicide attempt. The contract stipulated that Luke Tang must receive mental health counseling in order to remain on campus.
Luke Tang left Harvard for the summer in May 2015 and did not receive mental health counseling between that time and his death in September, according to the complaint. The suit alleges the University and its employees were negligent for failing to fulfill the “duty of care” they assumed in their relationships with Luke Tang.
The suit remains in the preliminary stages of litigation, and the University’s lawyers have yet to file a response to the complaint in court. An initial schedule issued by the court lists Jan. 9, 2019 as the deadline for a response from Harvard.
University spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on the case, citing the pending status of the litigation. Neither the plaintiff nor any of the four individually named defendants responded to requests for comment.
Though he did not comment on the lawsuit itself, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana wrote in an email that his “thoughts and prayers continue to be with everyone who knew and loved Luke.”
“Losing a child is among the most painful things that can happen to a family,” he wrote.
In the years following Luke Tang’s death, his parents have worked to raise awareness for mental health issues — especially as they affect Asian-American communities — and they have created a memorial fund in their son’s honor.
In 2017, a group of filmmakers chronicled his parents’ activism and their struggles in a documentary called “Looking for Luke.” His parents were closely involved in the production of the film and penned a letter expressing gratitude for it.
“We need to more fully understand our children and loved ones, and let them know how much we care,” they wrote in a statement shortly after the film’s release. “We hope that after viewing this film, you will have a better understanding of Luke’s life, and help spread awareness of mental health, in an effort to prevent further tragedies from happening.”
The next steps for the case remain unclear. Though Luke Tang’s father is requesting a jury trial, that trial would not begin until 2021 — if it occurs at all, according to court filings.
‘NO MENTAL HEALTH COUNSELING’
Wendell Tang’s lawyers filed the 16-page complaint detailing Luke Tang’s struggles and treatment during the final year of his life. The complaint ultimately alleges the University acted with negligence in its relationship with Luke.
A section of the plaintiff’s complaint, entitled “Facts,” outlines the months leading to Luke Tang’s death.
Luke Tang first attempted suicide in April 2015 in a residence hall at Harvard after experiencing symptoms of suicidal ideation, according to the complaint. Within two weeks, Harvard sent Luke Tang to receive inpatient care at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Belmont, Mass.
During his week-long stay at the hospital, Shapiro visited Luke Tang. Shapiro, who is now the College’s senior resident dean, was a resident dean of freshmen at the time Luke Tang was first hospitalized. The complaint states that, following Luke Tang’s discharge from the hospital, he met with Northrop, who had received reports from psychiatrists at McLean Hospital recommending that Luke Tang receive weekly psychiatric therapy.
That same day, Luke Tang informed Northrop of his plans to travel to China for a week in May of that year. During that meeting, Northrop told him he must speak with his therapist to create a support plan for his time in China. She added that he must continue therapy upon his return to the College.
Shapiro, Northrop, and Abramson helped to prepare a “contract” outlining the terms of Luke Tang’s continued tenure at Harvard, the complaint alleges. Harvard required that Luke Tang agree to the contract in order to remain on campus, and Luke Tang was not allowed to change or negotiate the terms of the contract.
In line with the contract, “Tang was expected to follow the recommendations of his treatment team, including attending sessions regularly and actively participating in his treatment,” the complaint reads.
On May 8, Luke Tang met with Northrop for a check-in, when she discovered he had failed to schedule a follow-up appointment with his therapist. At that meeting, Northrop reminded Luke Tang of Harvard’s expectation that he would continue treatment.
Luke Tang met with Northrop again on May 15. By that time, Shapiro had informed Northrop of her concerns for Luke Tang given his lack of treatment plans for the summer, and that she planned to voice her concerns to Luke Tang’s parents.
The next day, Luke Tang left for his week-long trip to China. He returned to Harvard in August of that same year.
On September 12, Luke Tang died by suicide in Lowell House.
“Tang had no mental health counseling between May 16, 2015 and September 12, 2015,” the complaint alleges.
HUHS spokesperson Michael Perry declined to comment on the pending litigation, though he wrote in an email he believes students should be reminded of the mental health services Harvard offers.
“We want to remind students that Counseling and Mental Health Services (CAMHS) remains steadfast in its commitment to providing the entire Harvard student community access to safe, effective, and convenient mental health services,” Perry wrote. “If you need help or are experiencing any distress, please contact CAMHS at 617-495-5711.”
The remainder of the complaint lists each of the defendants and the reasons for which Wendell Tang believes they were negligent in their care for Luke Tang. The lawsuit alleges the University and its employees acted in negligence by failing to follow suicide prevention protocols. The complaint lists 12 instances in which it alleges the University showed negligence, including in Harvard employees’ decision to design a contract that “failed to provide reasonable safety” for Luke Tang and their alleged failure to uphold the provisions of that contract.
The complaint lists similar allegations of negligence for each individually named defendant, adding that the plaintiff believes Northrop and Abramson were also negligent as medical professionals.
Wendell Tang’s lawyers wrote that the “reckless and/or grossly negligent” conduct of the University’s employees entitles the plaintiff to punitive damages and other costs totaling to more than $20 million.
‘DUTY OF CARE’
The September lawsuit filing marks the first stage in what may turn into legal battle that could span years. At present, it is unclear how the suit will progress.
An attached scheduling document lists Jan. 9, 2019 as the deadline for a response to the complaint. The document includes a long-term timeline for the case, under which a trial — if one happens at all — must be scheduled by March 2021. If the case does go to trial, the schedule states the case must be resolved by September 2021.
Wrongful death lawsuits against universities are often resolved by settlements between universities and students’ families before reaching trial, according to Carolyn Reinach Wolf, an attorney who specializes in mental health-related litigation. For suits that do make it to trial, judges’ decisions tend to be highly dependent on the specific circumstances of individual cases.
“There’s not one sort of national standard of ‘if X, then Y,’” Wolf said.
Massachusetts state law provides for the compensation of punitive damages as well as funeral and burial costs in cases of wrongful death resulting from negligence.
Wendell Tang filed his complaint in court with 10 counts against the five defendants. The complaint individually charges Harvard and the four named employees with one count of negligence leading to wrongful death and one count seeking punitive damages.
A similar high-profile case recently rocked MIT’s campus, just a few miles from Harvard. The 2011 suicide of a Ph.D. candidate, Han Nguyen, prompted the suit, which ultimately went before Massachusetts’s Supreme Judicial Court, the state’s highest court of appeals. That court found MIT was not liable for the student’s death and outline specific circumstances that must exist for a university to be held liable. One of those circumstances is a student informing university officials of plans to take his or her own life.
The complaint alleges that Luke Tang’s suicide was “foreseeable” to each of the four named employees cited in the case.
“Prior to September 12, 2015, Harvard, its agents, servants and employees had actual knowledge of Luke Tang’s suicide attempt which occurred while he was enrolled at Harvard and of Luke Tang’s other stated plans or intentions to commit suicide,” the complaint reads.
The law firm that represented Nguyen’s family in the MIT case — Heinlein, Beeler, Mingace & Heineman — is the same firm helping Luke Tang’s father sue Harvard. The firm’s website lists “student suicide” as one of their lawyers’ areas of practice.
Wolf added that factors such as whether a university takes appropriate suicide prevention steps, communicates certain problems to family members and outside professionals, or has taken on a close relationship with a student can determine the viability of wrongful death lawsuits.
The complaint alleges that each of the four named defendants had a “special relationship” with Luke Tang and consequently had a “duty of care” — an obligation to prevent him from self-harm.
Wolf said individual cases vary widely in terms of how universities respond to protocols and how they communicate with family members.
“It’s also important to understand that each case is very different on its facts. Did the student have a past history? Was the student acting out? Were parents calling the school saying, ‘I’m really concerned about my son’?” she said.
This case is not the first wrongful death lawsuit Harvard has faced for an on-campus death. The mother of Justin D. C. D. Cosby, a Cambridge resident who was fatally shot in Kirkland House in 2009, sued the University in 2012. The judge in that case eventually dismissed the suit.