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Ramifications of the Shin Lawsuit

The lawsuit filed on Jan. 28 by the family of Elizabeth H. Shin ’02 was a major shock to the MIT community, not so much out of surprise as for its potential impact. With the suit filed by the family of Scott S. Krueger ’01, MIT quickly settled and moved on -- by housing freshmen on campus, MIT could ensure that no freshman would ever again die following a fraternity pledge event. With the Shin lawsuit, however, MIT cannot distance itself in the same way -- no one can guarantee that students will not commit suicide in the future.

In a letter to the MIT community, President Charles M. Vest writes that MIT will “respond to these unfair and inaccurate allegations in court,” which indicates that MIT will fight the lawsuit. If MIT loses or settles this suit, all universities will be pressured to contact parents quickly, pushing the boundaries of confidentiality laws. In addition, students, knowing that their parents are likely to be contacted, might be more hesitant to seek help. Vest mentions students who “insist that information be withheld from their parents as a condition for accepting help,” something which has not yet been discussed in the Shin case. A settlement or Shin family victory would burden doctors in such situations, forcing them to put liability ahead of students’ privacy rights and medical interests. The Tech applauds Vest for defending students’ needs in his letter.

In addition, malpractice, which the Shins allege, is unclear at best in a case of mental health care. One cannot possibly predict the outcome of notifying a student’s parents about mental illness, despite a seemingly obvious diagnosis in hindsight. Shin actively sought the help of friends, faculty, administrators, and mental health professionals at MIT, but apparently she did not seek the help of her parents, even though MIT Medical encourages students to involve their parents in treatment. Shin’s family could have asked her to sign a confidentiality waiver, but apparently they chose not to take this initiative, leaving the decision entirely to MIT faculty, administrators, and medical professionals.

The Tech certainly understands the Shin family’s feelings and reasons for filing suit against MIT; the grief from the loss of their daughter is clearly reason enough to seek answers and explanations. If the Shin family is sincere about improving MIT’s mental health system and preventing future suicides, however, they should announce how some portion of the $27.7 million they might win from MIT would be applied to mental health initiatives, much in the same way a scholarship fund was established in the Krueger settlement.

President Vest should be commended for defending those at MIT who tried to help Elizabeth Shin, but more importantly, he should be commended for considering the impact on the MIT community in addition to the legal ramifications of the Shin lawsuit. MIT should remain steady in its resolve to stand up for students, even if it means fighting for our rights in a courtroom.