Attorneys for MIT have begun their responses in court in what is expected to be a legal battle of three years or more over the Apr. 14, 2000 death of sophomore Elizabeth Shin.
Shin, 19, died after suffering burns from a fire in her dormitory room. The Suffolk County medical examiner ruled the death a suicide.
The firm of Palmer & Dodge, MIT's lawyers, said that by Friday, Mar. 8, they will file a detailed answer to charges of wrongful death and other claims brought against MIT and 11 employees by attorneys for Shin's parents, Cho Hyun Shin and Kisuk Shin.
David De Luca, the attorney for Shin's parents, has subpoenaed 14 current or former students to testify under oath in the pretrial information gathering stage of the case. On Friday, Mar. 1, the first of those students is scheduled to be deposed. MIT has offered to provide legal counsel through Palmer & Dodge to each of these individuals, but DeLuca has filed a motion that would prevent that firm from providing those services.
On Monday, Palmer & Dodge submitted a memorandum to the Middlesex Superior Court supporting MIT's right to provide legal services to these students through its law firm. Attorney Daryl Lapp wrote, "MIT has done so as support for members of its community, as it customarily has done in other situations when its students or employees are subpoenaed as third-party witnesses due to their MIT affiliations. In offering the services of its counsel, MIT informed each of the students that they also had the options of attending the depositions without representation, or of retaining other counsel on their own."
Amrys O. Williams, a senior in brain and cognitive sciences who is one of the subpoenaed students, was quoted in The Tech as commenting, "DeLuca's objection is that he thinks MIT students are going to be swayed by [Palmer & Dodge], but MIT has been really good at not taking sides. It is clear that they are not going to try to influence us."
The Shin lawsuit was filed Jan. 28 against MIT, two deans, five psychiatrists, a housemaster and three current or former members of the Campus Police. The individuals are named in part because Massachusetts law restricts legal judgments against charitable organizations to $20,000; the lawsuit seeks a total judgment of $27.6 million.
MIT responded with a brief public statement by Jeffrey Swope of Palmer & Dodge: "The death of Elizabeth Shin was a tragedy--for this bright young woman, her family and friends, and the MIT community. But it was not the fault of MIT or anyone who works at MIT. According to information provided by the family's own lawyer, she had suffered from serious emotional problems that began at least as early as high school. Many people at MIT had offered as much help and support as they could to her. While MIT regrets the need to do so, it will defend against the claims that have been brought against it and the members of its community who had tried to help her."
President Charles M. Vest wrote a letter to the community Feb. 4 stating, "It is a sad fact that in today's litigious society, the very individuals who do the most to help our students can find themselves the targets of such claims. We grieve for Elizabeth Shin and try to understand the depth of her family's anguish, but we will defend those at MIT who labored hard and appropriately to help her. We are extraordinarily grateful to them, and the Institute will of course provide them with legal services and our support during the litigation.
"A number of people have asked us why MIT has not discussed the case more fully in public. There is obviously much more to the story than what the lawyer and the public relations firm hired by the family are saying in court papers and in statements to newspapers and television. The place for MIT to respond to these unfair and inaccurate allegations is in court, and not in the media. More complete facts will come out as the legal process continues.
"That process will allow us to explain the critical need for confidentiality and trust between our students and the MIT staff members who care for them, whether in the medical department, the Dean's Office or the residential houses. The quandary that they face is balancing students' legal and medical privacy rights with the obvious interests of parents in knowing how their sons and daughters are doing. This quandary is worked through on a case-by-case basis by professional judgment of how best to help each student. Such judgments are especially complicated when students insist that information be withheld from their parents as a condition for accepting help. We strongly encourage our students to involve their parents in their lives, and in almost all cases that is what happens."
One other comment by MIT was a Feb. 15 letter to The Tech by Swope of Palmer & Dodge. Swope stated, "Your analysis ... of the lawsuit filed by the parents of Elizabeth Shin against MIT may inadvertently have left the false impression that MIT or we, as its counsel, disclosed Ms. Shin's medical or psychiatric records to the press. Neither MIT nor we did so.
"After The Tech's article appeared, I spoke with the Shins' attorney, and he confirmed that they had given the media a CD-ROM with certain of her medical records on it, including her records from the MIT Medical Department. He said that a discharge summary from McLean Hospital, the psychiatric hospital, was in those MIT records, and that he believed it was that record, provided by the Shins themselves, that was the source of information reported in The Boston Globe and other media about her McLean admission."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 27, 2002.