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MIT responds, denies liability in Shin case

Lawyers filed answers Friday and Monday to the complaint in the $27 million lawsuit against MIT filed by the parents of Elizabeth Shin, the sophomore who died in April 2000 as a result of burns she suffered in a fire in her Random Hall room.

The MIT answer filed Friday categorically denies "that any MIT Mental Health Service professionals [failed] to provide Ms. Shin with appropriate care" and denies "that her death was proximately caused by any failure on the part of MIT or anyone affiliated with MIT." The answer was submitted on behalf of MIT as well as Associate Deans Arnold Henderson and Ayida Mthembu; Random Hall Housemaster Nina Davis-Millis; Anne Glavin, who was Chief of the MIT Campus Police at the time of Shin's death; and two MIT Campus Police dispatchers involved in the response to the fire.

On Monday, lawyers representing MIT psychiatrists stated that psychiatric care provided by MIT to Shin over 14 months "was appropriate in all regards, and every effort was made to provide Ms. Shin with a safe environment and with medical care consistent with their evaluation of the patient and her needs." The MIT psychiatrists also denied that MIT Mental Health Services lacked proper staffing levels, coordination of care or appropriate protocols for the treatment of students needing care.

Monday's two answers were submitted on behalf of MIT psychiatrists Dr. Peter Reich, Dr. Kristine Girard, Dr. Lili Gottfried, Dr. Anthony Van Neil, and on behalf of a psychiatrist who was working part-time for MIT, Dr. Linda Cunningham. The three separate answers on Friday and Monday are due to different insurance arrangements.

Shin's death was ruled a suicide by the state Medical Examiner's Office. Her parents claim that MIT psychiatrists failed to properly diagnose and treat her, that these psychiatrists and MIT administrators failed to inform her parents about Shin's psychiatric problems, and that MIT Campus Police failed to properly respond to the fire in her room.

The answers deny specific allegations in the complaint that Shin began to experience psychiatric problems "during her freshman year at MIT." Friday's answer states that "records of Ms. Shin's February 1999 psychiatric commitment to McLean Hospital and an excerpt from an analysis of Ms. Shin's case by a psychiatrist retained by plaintiffs' counsel to support plaintiffs' claims against the defendants (both of which were provided by plaintiffs' counsel) indicate that Ms. Shin began to experience psychiatric problems, including self-mutilating behavior, during high school."

The answers also respond to the Shins' claims that they were not informed by MIT of Shin's psychiatric problems during her time at MIT, and state that Shin's parents knew that Shin experienced serious problems in both her freshman and sophomore years.

Shin was hospitalized at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Belmont, following an overdose of Tylenol with Codeine in February of her freshman year. Friday's answer states that Shin's housemaster, Davis-Millis, "with Shin's permission, notified [the parents] of this hospitalization," and that Shin's parents visited her at McLean Hospital.

That answer goes on to state that "according to the McLean Hospital records provided by plaintiffs' counsel, [Shin's parents] were involved in the evaluation and treatment planning for her and it was recommended that they be involved in Ms. Shin's care."

That answer also notes that the McLean records state that Shin's mother considered the February incident to be a suicide attempt, that Shin's mother was reported to be angry at Shin, disappointed, and sad because of it, and that Shin's father was reported to be surprised and saddened by her actions.

The psychiatrists' answer states that while she was under their care, they "discussed with Ms. Shin her family dynamics, including pressures experienced by Ms. Shin, and her concerns regarding parental feelings."

In March, 2000, Davis-Millis also notified Shin's parents--again with Shin's permission--when Shin was briefly hospitalized a second time at the MIT Infirmary, according to Friday's answer. Shin was hospitalized overnight on March 18, 2000--the day before Shin was to go home to New Jersey for spring break--after other residents in Random Hall reported to Davis-Millis that Shin was distraught and Davis-Millis took her to MIT Medical. The answer states "Ms. Shin was discharged from the MIT Infirmary the following day to go home to New Jersey--after Ms. Davis-Millis, with Ms. Shin's permission, notified her parents of this hospitalization."

The answers also provide detailed responses to the Shins' allegations that the psychiatrists involved in her care failed to properly diagnose and treat her condition in the spring of her sophomore year, and in particular in the days leading up to the fire on April 10, 2000.

In her answer, Cunningham said her involvement with Shin began March 23, 2000, shortly after Shin was hospitalized overnight on March 18. As they developed a rapport, "the more Ms. Shin spoke, the more she identified features which were contributing to her situation including school, family, concerns regarding her 'path,' eating issues and cutting issues." Cunningham prescribed Celexa and four days later, Shin reported "that she was doing better on the medications," according to the answer filed on Cunningham's behalf.

Cunningham stated she was told April 4, 2000 by a clinical licensed social worker who was seeing Shin that Shin "was going to discuss her therapy options with her parents over the coming weekend" of April 8-9.

Friday's answer also states that in the days before the fire, Shin's therapists were discussing hospitalization options with her, including a partial hospitalization program at Two Brattle Center in Cambridge.

That answer stated that Reich, the head of MIT Mental Health Services, made arrangements on April 10 and left a telephone message for Shin to go to an intake appointment at that private psychiatric center for the morning of April 11.

Shortly after 9 p.m. on April 10, according to the answer, MIT police were dispatched to Shin's dorm room, where they found her on fire. "They extinguished the flames, pulled her from her room and began CPR." Cambridge Fire Department and Professional Ambulance's Advanced Life Support assisted with the treatment. She was transported by ambulance to Massachusetts General Hospital, where she died April 14.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 13, 2002.

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