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Court Orders Harvard to Produce Data on Student Suicides in Wrongful Death Lawsuit

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Harvard must disclose documents and other materials related to student suicides as part of pre-trial procedures in a 2018 wrongful death lawsuit, the Middlesex County Superior Court ruled last week.

The suit alleges that Harvard and some of its employees were negligent in their care of Harvard undergraduate Luke Z. Tang ’18, who died by suicide on campus in September 2015.

The student’s father, Wendell W. Tang, filed the suit in September 2018 against the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — as well as resident dean Catherine R. Shapiro, Lowell House resident dean Caitlin Casey, Harvard University Health Services mental health counselor Melanie G. Northrop, and HUHS psychiatrist David W. Abramson.

The court denied Harvard’s motion to dismiss the case in September 2019. Last year, the defendants and plaintiff filed dueling motions over whether certain University documents and materials would be subject to discovery in the lawsuit.

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In last week’s ruling, dated March 22, Justice of the Superior Court Valerie A. Yarashus ordered Harvard to produce documents and data on student suicides, among other evidence.

Yarashus wrote in the order that juries in negligence cases typically consider “the likelihood and severity of the potential harm in determining whether a defendant used reasonable care.” She added that the jury for this case “will need to assess the foreseeability of Luke Tang’s suicide.”

“These factors bring many of Tang’s discovery requests, including the requests for admissions concerning statistics and incidence of suicide, within the relevance boundaries of the claims being asserted,” Yarashus wrote in the ruling. “It would be patently unfair to instruct a jury to consider these factors while denying the plaintiff the right to seek discovery on those topics.”

The court ordered Harvard to produce campus police reports “related to Harvard student suicides” and statistics on student suicides dating from Jan. 1, 2005 to the present day — including the initials, year in school, and location of death of each Harvard student who died by suicide.

“Since reasonable care is affected by a defendant’s knowledge of risk, the plaintiff is entitled to discovery for a broader period of time than simply the time that Luke Tang was a student, with respect to Harvard’s protocols, policies, and procedures,” the order reads. “Other trial judges who have ruled on similar cases have found that ten years prior to a student suicide is a reasonable period of time to look back on similar cases.”

Still, the court requested information on other suicide cases brought against Harvard since Jan. 1, 2000, if they exist. The order states that this longer time frame “accounts for the fact that it is anticipated there will be far fewer court cases against Harvard than there were student suicides” and the increased likelihood of unearthing “more relevant information contained in similar court cases.”

The court also ruled that evidence on “the efficacy of Harvard’s response to the risk of student death” from Jan. 1, 2005 to present — including the number of students who were treated by Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services and “expressed suicidal ideation” during therapy, were treated for suicide threats or attempts, or died by suicide — must be provided “if and only if Harvard has already compiled this information.”

Harvard is not required to produce the confidential mental health records of students other than Luke Tang, the order states.

The ruling ordered Harvard to produce all emails that mention Luke Tang sent by or to the defendants prior to and after his death and all emails sent to or from his email address if it has not already done so. The court sustained Harvard’s objection, however, to a motion requesting all emails that mention Luke Tang sent by or to any “agents, servants and/or employees” of the University.

The order additionally requested Harvard to turn over all emails and other correspondence that concerned Luke Tang’s “risk of suicide” between University employees and mental health professionals who treated him.

Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on the lawsuit.

—Staff writer Alex M. Koller can be reached at alex.koller@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexmkoller.

—Staff writer Taylor C. Peterman can be reached at taylor.peterman@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @taylorcpeterman.

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