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Mass. Supreme Court Cites Restatements Second and Third of Torts

Mass. Supreme Court Cites Restatements Second and Third of Torts

In a wrongful death case filed by the estate of a student against the student’s university, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court cites § 314 of the Restatement of the Law Second, Torts, and § 14 of the Restatement of the Law Third, Torts: Liability for Physical and Emotional Harm.

The case involves a graduate student with a history of mental health problems for which he sought treatment from both university and non-university healthcare providers. The plaintiff claimed that the university and its agents owed the plaintiff a duty of reasonable care and breached that duty, resulting in the student’s suicide.

Acknowledging that there is no general duty to prevent a person from committing suicide, the court discusses the establishment of a duty based on the relationship between parties, citing § 314 of the Restatement Second of Torts:

We have, however, recognized that special relationships may arise in certain circumstances imposing affirmative duties of reasonable care in regard to the duty to rescue, including the duty to prevent suicide. The classic case is the custodial relationship, particularly jails or hospitals. In Slaven v. Salem, 386 Mass 885, 888 (1982), we addressed the duty and accompanying responsibilities of a jailor for the suicide of a prisoner in his custody.

"One who is required by law to take or voluntarily takes the custody of another under circumstances such as to deprive the other of his normal opportunities for protection is under a duty (1) to protect them against unreasonable risk of physical harm, and (2) to give them first aid after it knows or has reason to know that they are ill or injured, and to care for them until they can be cared for by others."

Id. at 887, citing Restatement (Second) of Torts § 314A (1965). We further explained that "[t]he comments to § 314A state that a 'defendant is not liable where he neither knows nor should know of the unreasonable risk, or of the illness or injury.'" Slaven, supra, citing Restatement (Second) of Torts, supra at § 314A comment e. Finally, we noted that in cases in other jurisdictions "that have addressed the issue of the liability of a jailor for the suicide of one in his custody, most have required that there be evidence that the defendant knew, or had reason to know, of the plaintiff's suicidal tendency." Slaven, supra at 888.

The court then cites § 40 of the Restatement Third of Torts in its discussion of the modern university-student relationship.

We begin with the Restatement (Third) of Torts, which states that "[a]n actor in a special relationship with another owes the other a duty of reasonable care with regard to risks that arise within the scope of the relationship." Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liability for Physical and Emotional Harm § 40(a) (2012). Included in the list of special relationships giving rise to such duty is "a school with its students." Id. at § 40(b)(5). This, of course, is the beginning and not the end of the analysis. There is a wide range of schools -- from elementary to graduate school -- and great differences in the scopes of student-school relationships. Additionally, the Restatement (Third) of Tort's formulation of special relationship is not focused on the specific question of student suicide.

Whether a university has a duty to prevent a student’s suicide relies on several factors, however, the court did not find that a duty had been established in this case. Accordingly, the court agrees that summary judgment was properly granted for the defendants on the tort claims.

Nguyen v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (SJC 12329) (May 7, 2018)