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Shin Family Files Wrongful Death Lawsuit

By Qian Wang

The family of Elizabeth H. Shin ’02, who committed suicide in April 2000, filed a wrongful death civil lawsuit against MIT and its employees on Monday, claiming damages of $27.65 million. The family alleges that MIT administrators, medical workers and campus police officers acted with gross negligence and failed to provide adequate care to their daughter.

David Deluca, the lawyer representing the Shin family, said at a press conference Monday at the law firm of Murphy, Hesse, Toomey, and Lehane that MIT violated its own regulations and did not properly treat Elizabeth. “In this case, MIT acted against its own policy. Elizabeth was not seen and treated when she should have been,” Deluca said.

The suit names MIT, MIT Medical mental health doctors Peter Reich, M.D., Linda Cunningham, M.D., Kristine A. Gerard, M.D., Lili A. Gottfried, M.D., and Anthony Van Niel, M.D. as defendants. In addition, Associate Dean Arnold R. Henderson, Associate Dean Ayida Mthembu, Random Hall housemaster Nina Davis-Millis, former Chief of Campus Police Anne P. Glavin, CP dispatcher Orlando Tirella, and Officer Paul Valentino are named in the suit. The complaint also lists John and Jane Doe as defendants, leaving the possibility for further named defendants in the future.

Cho Hyun and Kisuk Shin, Elizabeth’s parents, strongly believe that MIT failed to prevent their daughter’s death. At the press conference, Cho Hyun Shin called the university’s mental health services “below substandard.”

Jeffrey Swopes, MIT’s lawyer for the case, issued a press release denying all the charges brought forth against the Institute. “The death of Elizabeth Shin was a tragedy -- for this bright young woman, her family and friends, and all those at MIT who tried to help her,” Swopes said. “But it was not the fault of MIT or anyone who works at MIT.”

Shins were unaware of problems

The Shins claim they never realized how vast Elizabeth Shin’s emotional problems were until after her death. “That’s something we learned after the tragedy. We just had no idea what was going on,” Shin’s father said. He said that he and his wife always believed that their daughter was a happy and cheerful person who thrived in challenging environments.

USA Today, however, reported that Elizabeth Shin struggled with emotional issues since high school. The paper reported yesterday that she cut her wrists after receiving an incomplete grade during her senior year that caused her to become salutatorian instead of valedictorian.

Suit chronicles Shin’s problems

The lawsuit gives a detailed description of the events that led to Shin’s death from the time she arrived as a freshman, based on MIT medical records. Freshman year, Shin was hospitalized for a week at McLean Hospital after overdosing on Tylenol. Several MIT medical personnel and administrators learned about the incident. She was then referred to a MIT psychologist who diagnosed her with “situational issues” and did not provide any further medical referrals for the summer.

The Shins said that although they knew of Elizabeth’s hospitalization, they never realized she was suicidal.

Shin continued to have psychological problems in her sophomore year. During the fall semester, she was referred by her associate dean to see a psychologist, but she never went to her appointment. She also sent an e-mail to a faculty member stating that she was contemplating suicide. The e-mail was forwarded to several MIT employees, but nothing occurred as a result of the e-mail.

Conditioned worsened in spring

In March 2000, Shin met with several of MIT Mental Health Services’ personnel after her dormmates reported her suicide threats. She was diagnosed with depression and also a potential borderline personality disorder. As a result, Shin was prescribed with anti-depressant medication and was encouraged to come into the clinic whenever she felt suicidal.

In April 2000, Shin told a dormmate that she wanted to kill herself by sticking a knife into her chest. When the dormmate reported this, Shin was taken to MIT Mental Health Services and spoke to the on-call psychiatrist. However, he decided to not meet with her personally.

Two days later, on April 10, 2000 at 1 a.m., two of Shin’s dormmates reported to their housemaster that she had threatened suicide again. The housemaster contacted the on-call psychiatrist, who told her that he did not believe Shin was at risk. At 9 p.m. the same day, a resident at Random Hall heard the smoke detector go off in Elizabeth Shin’s room. The fire was reported, and a campus police officer rescued Elizabeth Shin from her room. She died four days later on April 14, 2000 with third degree burns over 65 percent of her body.

Shins hope MIT improves

Since the incident, MIT has reevaluated its Mental Health Services. The Mental Health Task Force released a final report on November 14, 2001 which made recommendations such as extending office hours and increasing staff members in the department. Office hours have already been extended from 8:30 A.M. to 5 P.M. on Mondays through Thursdays to 8:30 A.M. to 7 P.M.

However, Deluca believes these efforts are weak and more drastic measures need to be implemented. “MIT is just putting more people and more money into a flawed system,” DeLuca said. He also complained about the legitimacy of the task force itself. Top among his criticisms were that there were no nationally known experts or parents of suicide victims.

The Shins also have problems with MIT’s privacy policy when dealing with students who seek psychiatric assistance. Confidentiality laws allow colleges to keep information private and only notify parents if the student is an eminent threat to herself or her peers.

The Shins firmly believe that MIT should have notified them of their daughter’s condition. “MIT not giving us that one phone call -- they failed,” Cho Hyun Shin said.

Kisuk Shin hopes that this case will prevent tragedies like this from happening again. “I want parents to get even one that one phone call ... so they don’t have to go through the pain of what we went through,” Kisuk Shin said. “This shouldn’t happen again.”

Kevin R. Lang contributed to the reporting of this story.