Wrongful death lawsuit against MIT continues after years of contention
Sloan graduate student Han Nguyen committed suicide by throwing himself off the roof of Building E19 on June 2, 2009. Minutes earlier, Nguyen had gotten off the phone with Sloan professor Birger Wernerfelt. Wernerfelt had “read him the riot act” in regards to a presumptuous email Nguyen had sent to Trey Hedden, his summer research supervisor, according to court filings.
In 2011, Nguyen’s father Dzung Nguyen filed a wrongful death lawsuit against MIT, Wernerfelt, and two others. According to Dzung Nguyen, Wernerfelt’s admonishment pushed Han Nguyen “quite literally over the edge.”
Judge Bruce R. Henry ruled earlier this year that the trial will continue in front of a jury.
MIT and the other defendants tried unsuccessfully to have the case thrown out on a technicality in November 2014. They argued that because Han Nguyen had a summer research assistant position and wasn’t taking classes as he did during the school year, he should be considered an employee and not a student. Since the three men being sued were all employees, the defendants argued that the suicide should fall under the Workers’ Compensation Act (WCA).
The WCA “bars common law actions against employers” when an employee is injured due to their job. The defendants said that if Dzung Nguyen’s claims were true and Han Nguyen did kill himself because of MIT’s negligence and Wernerfelt’s phone call, his suicide was a personal injury caused by his employment and the WCA protected them from this lawsuit.
The defendants recommended Dzung Nguyen simply claim the monetary compensations called for by the WCA instead of pursuing “an amount that the [jury] deems fair and just, plus costs, interest and the reasonable funeral and burial expenses incurred” as demanded in the original filing.
Dzung Nguyen argued the opposite. He and his lawyer, Jeffrey Beeler, presented several reasons why Han Nguyen’s death does not fit the scenarios illustrated by the WCA. They pointed out that in the past, MIT had argued that graduate students of any private institution were not employees, citing a past case that found that Brown University graduate students were not employees and thus could not unionize.
Although the defendants argued that Han Nguyen’s summer funding didn’t come from his financial aid and thus could be considered a wage, Dzung Nguyen and Beeler responded that the Brown University case decided research funding isn’t a wage, regardless of where it comes from, because graduate research and teaching aren’t a service to the university, but rather an opportunity for graduate students to learn.
Dzung Nguyen further argued that because Han Nguyen’s conversation was with Wernerfelt and not with Hedden, his suicide didn’t result from his summer position.
This year Judge Henry said that these issues — including that of whether Han Nguyen was an MIT employee — were uncertain or unclear, and granted Dzung Nguyen’s request to “refuse to let MIT have it both ways,” recommending that the trial continue in front of a jury.
Along with MIT and Wernerfelt, Dzung Nguyen sued Sloan professor Drezen Prelec and MIT Student Support Services Dean David W. Randall. The original court filing indicated that they and several others, including psychiatrists at Massachusetts General Hospital, had prior concerns about Han Nguyen’s mental health. Dzung Nguyen argued that while they had tried to help him and be accommodating, their actions that immediately preceded his death were negligent and punitive.