News

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.

6 Comments
1
Socialist Worker almost 3 years ago

This is an example of capitalist society, its brutality and lack of concern for Human Life.

Did his job require him to be on the roof of E19? How did he gain access to the roof of E19? Did MIT take any reasonable precautions to prevent access to its roofs by unauthorized persons?

Why the need to read him the riot act to begin with? Oh right I get it now that is the way employees no mater what their position in a corporation are treated by the higher ups.

It my way or the Highway right. Don't do what's right do what your told to. At the Sloan School its all about bean counting and political justifications for reprehensible actions within a corporation.

They should hang a banner at the Sloan School 'The pursuit of profit is the highest calling for all of humanity.'

2
Socialist Worker almost 3 years ago

This is an example of capitalist society, its brutality and lack of

concern for Human Life.

Did his job require him to be on the roof of E19? How did he gain access to

the roof of E19? Did MIT take any reasonable precautions to prevent access

to its roofs by unauthorized persons?

Why the need to read him the riot act to begin with? Oh right I get it now

that is the way employees no mater what their position in a corporation are

treated by the higher ups.

It my way or the Highway right. Don't do what's right do what your told to.

At the Sloan School its all about bean counting and political

justifications for reprehensible actions within a corporation.

They should hang a banner at the Sloan School 'The pursuit of profit is the

highest calling for all of humanity.'

3
Freedom almost 3 years ago

Your logic is:

There is a single suicide in a (nominally) capitalist society

Hence

Capital societies promote suicide.

Guess what? SHIT HAPPENS. In every single government bad stuff will happen.

Your argument is utter bullshit and breathtakingly stupid. Truth is, statistics show suicide rates are higher in communist and ex-communist countries, showing communism increases mental problems and suicide, if anything.

History shows Communism and anarchy are the biggest killers

4
Kim OBrien almost 3 years ago

Student suicide rates at MIT ranked highest in the nation when I was at MIT. Is that still true today?

Suicide is like cancer. It has risk factors that increase the probability of it happening. Stress caused by loss of a job, disability and bad grades, in my experience, increase the risk factor for suicide. If you can find an article that claims other wise I'd like to read it.

Dog eat Dog capitalism with no safety net is the solution that all the Libertarians and Objectivist propose. It has already been tried out in the US during 1920's before the stock market crash of 1929.

Were those people jumping out windows because dog eat dog capitalism brought them riches? Were they standing in bread lines because capitalism brought them unlimited possibilities of employment and success?

5
Freedom almost 3 years ago

4-- Interestingly, it seems you can explain MIT's higher suicide rate by the high number of male students. And it seems the suicide rate is not statistically significant (only like a 65 percent confidence level) due to the small numbers involved. Here's a source: http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/discussion/comment/2263633/

(As to MIT being the college with most suicide, I found no source for that. Not sure where you got that from.)

That's not to say that we shouldn't work to avoid mental illness and suicide (I certainly have ideas). But it does mean we should not worry about MIT having a horrible flaw in its culture.

Your idea that dog eat dog capitalism in the 20s caused the Great Depression is sadly a poor reading of history. I'm not blaming you-- when you consume mass media and learn from public schools with tight connections to the federal bureaucracy, it's not a surprise that history is rewritten in a way that blames a lack of federal bureaucracy for problems. Progressivism is certainly attractive based on what you read in NYTimes, see on CNN, or learn in public school. But the truth is different.

I encourage you to read the following informative article reviewing a careful, detailed history of Coolidge: http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21572176-americas-30th-president-has-been-much-misunderstood-when-less-led-more

It points out that when Calvin Coolidge (America's best president) entered office in 1920, "the stockmarket had fallen by 47.8 from its peak in 1919, further than it would fall in 1929." By saying "no" to dangerous economic policies advocated by bureaucrats, Coolidge was able to get the American economy to recover from an impending crash. The US prospered tremendously in the 20s, and Coolidge enjoyed huge popularity while in office. He was a hero for the American people.

However, in 1929, 7 months AFTER Tea Party-like Coolidge left office the economy started teetering again, and the new administration was led by Herbert Hoover, who described himself as a "progressive and reformer" and denounced "Laissez-faire capitalism." Hoover of course said "yes" to the bureaucrats and self-interested "experts" (think Socialist Worker) and the economy quickly drove itself into the ground.

A correct reading of history would show progressivism caused the Great Depression. Sorry.

Also socialist countries are less free and often have higher suicide rates. Top-down policies are not the answer. Sorry.

6
Freedom almost 3 years ago

I said: "That's not to say that we shouldn't work to avoid mental illness and suicide (I certainly have ideas)."

Let me expand on that:

If you are a man struggling with low self esteem or depression, read this article from a fellow traveler:

http://www.littletinyfrogs.com/article/452543/7_things_to_know_about_Major_Depressive_Disorder

It will provide more value than paying bureaucrats to ban playground insults like "gay!" (In my experience, a playground insult relieves depression rather than causing it. It's all in good fun!)

I've talked to people with major depressive disorder, and when I was my genuine, rude self (something bureaucrats want to ban because it's "offensive"), they thanked me afterwards, once with a written letter. When you hit rock bottom, it's often because you've stopped lying to yourself (which means you agree with what I say), and that's a positive opportunity for growth.