By Nate Raymond
BOSTON (Reuters) - A lawyer for the father of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Ph.D. candidate who killed himself on campus argued in Massachusetts' highest court on Tuesday that universities could be held responsible when students commit suicide on their premises.
In arguments before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in a case questioning the responsibilities of universities, a lawyer for MIT said that schools could only be held liable in limited circumstances for student suicides on campus.
The student, Han Nguyen, jumped to his death at the age of 25 from the top of a building at the prestigious university in 2009.
His father's lawyer, Jeffrey Beeler, told the court that MIT faculty knew Nguyen was a suicide risk but did nothing to ensure he received help. MIT disputed that assertion.
Beeler said the court should find MIT and other universities owe a duty of care to students who are at risk of suicide and that failing to recognize that duty would result in a missed opportunity to prevent other deaths.
"The only way that something important is going to happen here is if colleges themselves take on the responsibility to do the things that are necessary," Beeler said.
MIT's lawyer, Kevin Martin, said that in 2007 the school sent Nguyen to an on-campus mental health center, a step he said met the standard that the father's lawyer had described to the court.
Nguyen then decided he did not want the school involved and saw an off-campus psychologist instead, Martin said.
"Students these days quite reasonably expect that decisions they make about their own medical treatment, including mental health treatment, will be respected by universities," he said.
That argument echoed questions by one of the five judges who are weighing whether to revive the lawsuit. Justice Scott Kafker asked what MIT could have done differently given Nguyen's treatment decisions.
"What are they supposed to do?" he asked.
The case is being watched by other universities including Harvard and Tufts, which filed supporting papers arguing that a ruling against MIT would unreasonably require non-clinical faculty and staff to secure students against harming themselves.
MIT faculty members had warned in 2008 that Nguyen was at risk of suicide while deciding to modify his exams, Beeler, the father's lawyer, wrote in court papers.
Beeler wrote that four months before Nguyen's death, a professor recommended colleagues avoid failing him because they might have "blood on their hands."
Beeler said that on the day Nguyen died, the professor had called Nguyen and "read him the riot act" over an email Nguyen sent to another professor, a call Beeler said contributed to his suicide.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Dan Grebler and Grant McCool)