In the early years of the 21st century, administrators in institutions of higher learning have become increasingly concerned about the phenomenon of student suicides on their campuses. This concern was prompted in part by a highly publicized suit between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the family of a student who committed suicide (Shin v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2005) and a 2002 judgment involving Ferrum College in Virginia, in which a federal trial court ruled that the estate of a student who killed himself by hanging had made out a cause of action for negligence against the college and one of its administrators (Schieszler v. Ferrum College, 2002). The rising suicide rate for young people also contributed to this concern (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2007). In fact, between 2000 and 2008, a variety of law review articles examined liability issues pertaining to suicide among college students. This entry reviews several legal rulings dealing with suicides by college students and discusses the liability of educational institutions for student suicides.
As of 2008, though, only a handful of published court decisions addressed the issue of institutional liability for the suicide death of college or university students. In two of these cases, state courts decided that suicide is an intervening cause that precludes third-party liability in their respective jurisdictions (Bogust v. Iverson, 1960; Jain v. State, 2000). In a third case, the Supreme Court of Wyoming found that University of Wyoming employees were immune from liability for a student’s suicide (White v. University of Wyoming, 1998).
On the other hand, in Wallace v. Broyles (1998), a case involving the suicide death of a varsity athlete at the University of Arkansas, the Supreme Court of Arkansas was of the opinion that that the decedent’s mother could proceed with a suit against athletic officials there on the basis of allegations that they gave her son prescription pain medication in violation of federal drug-dispensing laws. Dissenting justices argued that there was no evidence that the defendants actually gave the athlete prescription medications and that the majority had proceeded on the basis of “irrelevant, albeit unsavory, practices” in the athletic department (p. 719).
In addition, in Schieszler, a federal trial court in Virginia pointed out that the estate of a first-year student who committed suicide presented sufficient evidence to demonstrate that college officials were in a “special relationship” with the student, that they were aware that he was in danger of committing suicide, and that they failed to take reasonable precautions to prevent the suicide from occurring. The court reached this conclusion despite the fact that the college’s dean of students responded immediately on learning that the student was suicidal by going to the student’s dormitory room and talking with both him and his girlfriend. Moreover, the court was not satisfied even though the dean obtained a written promise from the student not to attempt suicide and followed up by making arrangements for a counseling agency to provide him with counseling.
The fact that only a few courts have issued published opinions addressing institutional liability for student suicides at colleges and universities notwithstanding, at least 17 court cases have considered this issue in the context of elementary or secondary schools. These courts handed down judgments that should be of interest to officials at colleges and universities. Some of these cases proceeded under common negligence principles, others alleged constitutional violations, and another group alleged both state tort claims and federal constitutional violations.
In two articles addressing the liability of school systems for student suicides, Zirkel and Fossey (2004, 2005) observed that most decisions were rendered in favor of boards. In their 2005 article, the authors wrote that educators had little to fear from suits arising from student suicides, because most courts were “generally inhospitable to plaintiffs seeking to hold educators liable for a student’s suicide death,” regardless of whether boards were sued in negligence or for constitutional violations (Zirkel & Fossey, 2005, p. 497). School boards prevailed in these cases on a variety of grounds, including statutory Immunity
and the tort principle that suicide is an intervening cause that forecloses tort liability for individuals’ suicides.
Suicide by students in higher education has sometimes been described as an epidemic. Yet, the rates for the traditional college-student age group are actually lower than for older Americans. Among males, the highest rate of suicide is among individuals aged 75 and older. Among women, suicide rates are highest for individuals in their 40s and 50s (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2008).
Regardless of the liability risk, commentators have urged officials in institutions of higher education to implement formal suicide-prevention policies with specific guidelines for intervention for suicidal students and for contacting their parents in appropriate circumstances (Moore, 2007; Wei, 2008). Based on analyses of student suicide cases involving elementary and secondary schools and published cases involving the suicide of college and university students, American courts do not appear particularly receptive to suits seeking to render colleges or universities liable for the suicide deaths of their students.
Richard FosseyFurther Readings
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2007). Suicide trends among youths and young adults aged 10–24 years—United States, 1990–2004. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 56, 905–908.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2008, Summer). Suicide: Facts at a glance. Retrieved June 4, 2008, from http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/dvp/Suicide/suicide_data_sheet.pdf
Fossey, R., & Zirkel, P. A. (2004). Liability for a student suicide in the wake of Eisel. Texas Wesleyan Law Review, 10, 403–439.
Moore, H. E. (2007). Note: University liability when students commit suicide: Expanding the scope of the special relationship. Indiana Law Review, 40, 423–451.
Wei, M. (2008). College and university policy and procedural responses to students at risk of suicide. Journal of College and University Law, 34, 285–318.
Zirkel, P. A., & Fossey, R. (2005). Liability for student suicide. Education Law Reporter, 197, 489–497. Legal Citations
Bogust v. Iverson, 102 N.W.2d 228 (Wis. 1960).
Jain v. State, 617 N.W.2d 293 (Iowa 2000).
Schieszler v. Ferrum College, 236 F. Supp. 2d 602, 609 (W.D. Va. 2002).
Shin v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, No. 020403, 2005 WL 1869101, at 13 (Mass. Super. Ct. June 27, 2005).
Wallace v. Broyles, 961 S.W.2d 712 (Ark. 1998).
White v. University of Wyoming, 954 P.2d 983 (Wyo. 1998).