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Mental Health Counselor Denies Culpability in Wrongful Death Suit, Harvard Moves to Dismiss

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Harvard and several University employees filed motions last month denying culpability or requesting dismissal in a wrongful death lawsuit alleging they were negligent in their care of a Harvard undergraduate.

The suit concerns the death of Luke Z. Tang ’18, who died by suicide on campus in September 2015. Wendell W. Tang, his father, filed the lawsuit in the Middlesex County Superior Court on Sept. 11, 2018, accusing the University and its employees of “negligence and carelessness” that directly resulted in Tang’s death. The lawsuit argues the defendants are responsible for damages amounting to at least $20 million.

In a Jan. 18 filing, Harvard University Health Services mental health counselor Melanie G. Northrop, a defendant in the suit, denied the charges against her that allege she was negligent and that she is responsible for paying damages.

The original complaint outlined 12 instances in which Northrop allegedly showed negligence, including claims that she failed to follow suicide prevention protocols.

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The complaint states that shortly after Luke Tang's first suicide attempt in a College residential building in April 2015, the College sent him to McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. for inpatient care. Administrators outlined a “contract” laying out terms for Luke Tang’s return to the College, including a requirement that he receive regular counseling and care, according to the complaint.

After Luke Tang failed to schedule a follow-up appointment with his therapist after a May 8 appointment, administrators discussed concerns about whether he had a summer treatment plan, the complaint alleges. Luke Tang left campus for the summer and returned in August. A month later, he died by suicide in Lowell House after going months without counseling.

Northrop’s filing denies the allegations that she was negligent. She also argues that she had no knowledge of Luke Tang’s plans to attempt suicide and could not have foreseen his death.

Northrop’s filing includes 14 arguments — listed as “affirmative defenses” — arguing that she was “justified in her actions” and “acted in good faith at all relevant times.” Her list of arguments also includes claims that the plaintiff lacks standing and that the statute of limitations relevant to the case has passed.

Northrop’s response also disputes parts of the narrative laid out in Wendell Tang’s complaint. Her filing contests that she did not have an alleged “special relationship” with Luke Tang and that her actions did not cause his death, both of which the original complaint alleges.

In a document filed Jan. 16, Harvard and several other employees named in the lawsuit informed the court that they had served Wendell Tang with a motion to dismiss the suit. The employees included Crimson Yard Resident Dean at the time Catherine R. Shapiro and Lowell House Resident Dean Caitlin M. Casey. HUHS psychiatrist David W. Abramson filed a separate motion to dismiss Jan. 18.

University spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on the case.

Both Wendell Tang and Northrop requested a jury trial. If the case progresses to that stage, a trial is slated to begin in 2021.

—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at shera.avi-yonah@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.

—Staff writer Delano R. Franklin can be reached at delano.franklin@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @delanofranklin_.

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