Posts tagged with "aware that suicide was a general risk"

Material Issues Surrounding Circumstances of Student’s Suicide

On November 4, 2003, Terence Leary, a Wesleyan University (Wesleyan) student and pitcher on the school’s baseball team,[1] called the campus public safety officers complaining about a panic attack he was experiencing. Although Terence was transported by the officers to a nearby hospital, they simply dropped him off and departed “without further investigating or securing medical attention for him.” Soon thereafter, Terence left the hospital because he “couldn’t take it”[2] and committed suicide by drowning in a nearby creek. His death “sent ripples across the campus.”[3]

Allegations Against the School

Terence’s family elected to sue Wesleyan under a negligence theory, arguing that the school “(1) hired and retained inadequate safety personnel; (2) failed to properly train its security personnel; and (3) did not follow appropriate measures for handling distressed students.”[4] It further alleged:

[T]he security personnel (1) knew or should have known that Terence Leary was in a distressed condition, had suicidal tendencies and was a threat to himself, and they failed to investigate or provide Leary with adequate care; (2) failed to make sure Terence Leary received adequate treatment at the hospital; and (3) the university failed to conduct a proper investigation into Leary’s mental history.[5]

Wesleyan filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking dismissal of the lawsuit. It countered that Terence’s death was caused by his own negligent actions; thus, they were not liable. It further contended that it owed no duty to Terence because the law does not recognize a special relationship between a university and its students.

Connecticut law does not recognize a general duty to protect others from harming themselves, unless there is a special relationship between the two parties. A “duty arises particularly in special relationships where the plaintiff is typically in some respect particularly vulnerable and dependent upon the defendant who, correspondingly, holds considerable power over the plaintiff’s welfare.”[6] Thus, a threshold inquiry is whether one party had custody or control of the other party.

The Court’s Decision

In this case, the Court found that the public safety officers, as agents of Wesleyan, had custody or control of Terence, because their “status as police officers created the perception that they controlled the situation.”[7] As such, they had the ability to prevent Terence from leaving the hospital prior to receiving medical attention.

The Court went to great length describing liability for “gratuitously undertaking to render services to another… [which is] based on the control that the individual has in the circumstances, and the power he assumes over the plaintiff’s welfare.”[8] A person will be liable for negligent performance of this undertaking[9] because “one [who] takes charge and control of [a] situation… is regarded as entering into a relation which is attenuated with responsibility.”[10] The Court further noted the great extent to which Wesleyan provided emergency services and information to its student body, and found that the officer’s actions actually increased the risk of harm to Terence.[11]

A Foreseeable Tragedy

Finally, the Court determined that Terence’s suicide was foreseeable, even though he had not previously made any threats on the night of his death or beforehand. Based on the transcript of Terence’s emergency phone call, a security expert for the plaintiff testified that “[Wesleyan’s] public safety officials should have recognized that [Terence] was in a mental crisis and could have been harmful to himself,” but failed to follow the provisions of Wesleyan’s own public policy manual that specifically addresses how to handle student mental health crises.[12]

As the Court further noted, these policies “provided evidence that the defendant was aware that suicide was a general risk, when dealing with an individual who was in mental distress.”[13] Thus, the motion for summary judgment was denied as to the negligence claim because of genuine issues of material fact related to control and custody of Terence and his mental distress when he placed the emergency call.

Conclusions

Increasingly, we are seeing Connecticut courts willing to hold elementary and secondary schools as well as colleges and universities responsible for tortious or negligent acts committed against students. If you personally or, if a parent, your child was the victim of an assault or other occurrence while under the supervision of school personnel, it is important that you seek an experienced school law practitioner to understand your rights and courses of action. Should you have any questions regarding negligence liability or any education law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq


 

[1] “Friends, family unite to share memories of Leary,” by Miriam Gottfried. Published November 14, 2003. Accessed October 8, 2012: http://wesleyanargus.com/2003/11/14/friends-family-unite-to-share-memories-of-leary/

[2] “Student’s death stuns Wesleyan community,” by Miriam Gottfried. Published November 7, 2003. Accessed October 8, 2012: http://wesleyanargus.com/2003/11/07/student%E2%80%99s-death-stuns-wesleyan-community/

[3] Id.

[4] Douglas Leary v. Wesleyan University, 2009 Conn. Super. LEXIS 621 at 2.

[5] Id.

[6] Coville v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, 57 Conn. App. 275, 281 (2000).

[7] Leary, supra at 12-13.

[8] Id. at 17-18, citing McClure v. Fairfield University, Superior Court, judicial district of Waterbury, Docket No. CV 000159028 (June 19, 2003, Gallagher, J.) (35 Conn. L. Rptr. 169, 2003 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1778)

[9] Coville, supra 57 Conn. App. 281.

[10] McClure, supra, 35 Conn. L. Rptr. 169, 2003 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1778.

[11] Leary, supra, at 22-23.

[12] Id. at 27.

[13] Id. at 33.