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November 07, 2017

Massachusetts' highest court is taking up a lawsuit filed by the family of an MIT graduate student who killed himself eight years ago after a professor berated him. The court heard arguments Tuesday morning.

The attorney for the family of Han Nguyen said proper intervention could have prevented his suicide.

"They had him and they dropped him,” said attorney Jeffrey Beeler, arguing before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Beeler told the justices MIT administrators knew Nguyen was troubled and the university was legally obligated to protect him.

"This was a kid who was walking around with bells and whistles on this issue,” he said.

Defending MIT, Kevin Martin said the school tried to connect Nguyen to on-campus services, but he refused them.

"In writing, he said, 'I'm seeing somebody off-campus. I don't want you to talk to them,’" Martin argued.

MIT and 18 other schools in an amicus brief say colleges can’t be required to predict and prevent suicides. The outcome in this case could have a profound impact on American higher education.

“I think almost every college in the country is paying attention to this case,” said WGBH Legal Analyst and Northeastern Law Professor Daniel Medwed.

Medwed says courts are often skeptical of vicarious liability, or holding an institution accountable for an individual’s actions.

“What adds another layer of complexity here is that the underlying harm relates to suicide,” Medwed explained. “The courts are further reluctant to look at suicides and suggest that someone else might be accountable.”

Medwed points out that Massachusetts does not even criminalize assisted suicide.

The Supreme Judicial Court is expected to make its decision within the next four months.

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