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Wrongful Death Trial Against CAMHS Employee Over 2015 Student Suicide To Begin Tuesday

The Middlesex County Superior Court is located in Woburn, Mass. A wrongful death lawsuit against a Harvard Counseling and Mental Health Service employee will go to trial at the courthouse on Tuesday.
The Middlesex County Superior Court is located in Woburn, Mass. A wrongful death lawsuit against a Harvard Counseling and Mental Health Service employee will go to trial at the courthouse on Tuesday. By Leah J. Teichholtz
By Michelle N. Amponsah and Joyce E. Kim, Crimson Staff Writers

A trial over a wrongful death lawsuit accusing Harvard Counseling and Mental Health Service employee Melanie G. Northrop of negligence in her care of Luke Z. Tang ’18, an undergraduate who died by suicide in 2015, is set to begin Tuesday.

The lawsuit, which was filed in September 2018 by Tang’s father, Wendell W. Tang, initially accused Harvard and several of its employees — Northrop, Senior Resident Dean Catherine R. Shapiro, and former Lowell House Resident Dean Caitlin M. Casey ’03 — of “negligence and carelessness” regarding their care for Tang.

Middlesex County Superior Court Judge Brent A. Tingle dismissed the claims against Harvard, Shapiro, and Casey in December 2022, writing that the parties sufficiently satisfied their duty of care to Tang following his initial suicide attempt in spring 2015. In January 2023, Tang’s family appealed the dismissal.

But Tingle allowed the charges against Northrop — Tang’s case manager after his initial suicide attempt in April 2015 — to move forward.

“There are disputed issues of material fact as to whether this defendant met this standard of care, including, but not limited to continuity of care issues at the end of 2014 school year and upon Luke Tang’s return for the 2015 school year,” Tingle wrote at the time.

The 2018 lawsuit against Harvard states that Tang was discharged to McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. following a suicide attempt. Around April 29, 2015, Tang met with Northrop after his discharge from the hospital.

During his meeting with Northrop, Tang told Northrop that he planned on going on a week-long retreat on May 17, and spending the summer in China before returning to Harvard for the fall semester, according to the lawsuit.

Northrop told Tang that he needed to “speak with his therapist about a support plan in China and that he would be expected to continue his treatment when he returned to the college and Lowell House,” according to the lawsuit.

In a follow-up meeting on May 8, she told Tang that he was “essentially not in treatment,” contrary to the College’s expectations, according to the lawsuit.

On May 1, Tang signed a contract with the College outlining the terms of his continued enrollment at Harvard. According to the terms of the contract between Tang and the College, Tang was expected to actively participate in his treatment plan, remain on any prescribed medications, and turn to Harvard University Health Services or the Cambridge City Hospital in the event of distress.

“If you cannot meet these conditions, then the College will need to re-evaluate whether you may continue to be enrolled and in residence,” the contract stated.

The lawsuit accuses Northrop of helping write a contract which “failed to provide reasonable safety” for Tang, failing to enforce the contract’s terms, and failing to include provisions requiring Tang to seek treatment when he returned to campus.

Tang’s final meeting with Northrop was May 15, 2015. According to the lawsuit, Northrop said on that date that Shapiro — the senior resident dean — had “expressed concern” that Tang had “no plan for ongoing therapy for the summer.”

Between the following day, when Tang left for China, and September 12, the day he died, Tang had no mental health treatment, the suit states.

The suit alleges that Harvard and its employees, including Northrop, “breached their duty of care” through failure to initiate suicide prevention protocols and did not take reasonable steps to prevent Tang from self-harm.

In a January 2019 filing, Northrop denied the charges of the lawsuit, claiming that she was “justified in her actions” and did not know of Tang’s ongoing suicidal ideation. She also objected to the descriptions of her meetings with Tang in the lawsuit.

Casey, Shapiro, former Lowell House Faculty Dean Diana L. Eck, other HUHS officials, and several members of Tang’s family are expected to testify during the trial.

Though other Harvard administrators and professors were initially called as witnesses by Tang’s family — including College Dean Rakesh Khurana and former College Dean Evelyn M. Hammonds — Superior Court Judge John P. Pappas, the new judge overseeing the case, allowed a motion by Harvard to quash efforts to compel them to testify.

The appeal and the original complaints are centered on precedent originating from Nguyen v. MIT, a 2018 Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court case concerning a student suicide on MIT’s campus in 2009.

The court ruled that MIT was not liable for the death by suicide of a student and outlined specific circumstances that must exist for a university to be held liable in a wrongful death suit, including the student informing university officials of suicidal ideation or past suicide attempts.

The trial, which takes place at the Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn, Mass., is expected to last up to eight days.

If you or someone you know needs help at Harvard, contact Counseling and Mental Health Services at (617) 495-2042 or the Harvard University Police Department at (617) 495-1212. Several peer counseling groups offer confidential peer conversations. Learn more here.

You can contact a University Chaplain to speak one-on-one at or here.

You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

—Staff writer Michelle N. Amponsah can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @mnamponsah.

—Staff writer Joyce E. Kim can be reached at Follow her on X at @joycekim324.

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