Suicide Lawsuit Filed Against Jacksonville University
Numerous suicide lawsuits have been filed against universities in recent months. However, plaintiffs have struggled to win any of them and most of them have not survived summary dismissal. In some cases, the plaintiffs have alleged that the university negligently failed to intervene on behalf of a student in crisis, intervened but failed to do so effectively, or caused the stress that ultimately led to the suicide.
The lawsuit alleges that a female student was kicked off the cross country team, told she was “retarded”, and mocked over her weight. The student, who had a learning disability, was struggling with her studies and asked the university to provide needed aid under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The request went unanswered and the student’s depression and hopelessness spiraled out of control ultimately resulting in her suicide, according to her family.
She is not the only student to make allegations against the coach. Other team members reported that the coach’s conduct was oppressive and constituted bullying. The coach resigned after the girl’s suicide.
Can the family win?
These are stronger allegations than the suits that have been dismissed, but it’s still not apparent what duty of care a university has toward its students. The law makes it clear that the university must act if the student makes it known that they intend to kill themselves. But short of a declaration of intent, what duty does the university owe?
Bullying lawsuits that don’t involve physical abuse are another matter that it is very difficult to sue over. Unless there is physical injury caused by the defendant, the law makes it very difficult to sue for unkind words. That’s true even when suicide results from the matter.
The last avenue for liability is to say that the university caused the suicide on the grounds of a civil rights abuse. Here is where the matter gets a bit trickier for the defense. While it’s difficult to win a lawsuit on the grounds of bullying alone, it’s another matter entirely when the bullying is borne of actionable prejudice by an institution. In that case, it becomes a civil rights matter and the plaintiff can sue on those grounds. That, presently, is the situation that the defense finds itself in and why this lawsuit will be one worth watching.
The other lawsuits have thus far not involved allegations that a defendant’s civil rights were abused. In this case, we have an ADA violation and a failure to process a viable request for academic support. Will it be enough? It’s hard to say.
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