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Cho Hyun Shin (left) said the April 2000 death of his daughter, Elizabeth Shin, probably was an accident.
Cho Hyun Shin (left) said the April 2000 death of his daughter, Elizabeth Shin, probably was an accident. (The Boston Globe/ File)

Parents strike settlement with MIT in death of daughter

Parents who sued MIT over the apparent suicide of their daughter, arguing that the university did not do enough to protect her, have settled the case that riveted college officials nationwide. In a surprising twist, MIT and the parents of Elizabeth Shin now agree that the young woman's death probably was an accident, not a suicide.

The parties refused to disclose the size of the payment made to Shin's parents in the settlement announced yesterday. Shin died of burns from a fire in her dormitory room in 2000, after a series of suicidal threats. Her parents originally sued MIT for $27 million.

''We appreciate MIT's willingness to spare our family the ordeal of a trial and have come to understand that our daughter's death was likely a tragic accident," Cho Hyun Shin, Elizabeth's father, said in a statement released by MIT. ''This agreement will allow us to move forward in the healing process."

The Shins' lawyer, David DeLuca, said evidence presented during the early phases of the lawsuit shed new light on the circumstances of Elizabeth Shin's death. Toxicology tests indicated she had overdosed, he said. He declined to name the drugs involved, although he said they included nonprescription medications. The overdose was nonlethal, but may have made her unresponsive when the candles in her room sparked a fire.

DeLuca said he no longer was interested in talking about blame, but praised changes that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made to its mental health services in the wake of a number of suicides. The family of another student who committed suicide is still suing MIT.

''The intent of the family from the outset was to find out what happened to Elizabeth," he said. ''We felt we had accomplished that, and a public trial was not going to accomplish anything more."

The case was scheduled to go to trial next month with claims against individual university psychiatrists and administrators. The claims against the university had been dismissed.

MIT spokesman Denise Brehm said the university believed all along that Elizabeth Shin's death was accidental, but couldn't talk about the litigation while it was ongoing.

Brehm pointed to the fact that there was no fire accelerant or suicide note, even though Elizabeth Shin ''was a prolific writer about her feelings," and said she was a willing participant in her own psychiatric care.

The settlement ends a case that many university administrators feared could expand their legal responsibility for preventing students from harming themselves. A judge's decision last summer allowing the lawsuit to proceed took a particularly expansive view of schools' liability in suicide cases. The settlement means that the decision never will go up for review by an appellate court that has the power to set precedent.

More and more, specialists say, universities try to avoid liability by forcing potentially suicidal students off campus. One student is suing George Washington University after he was banned from the campus, saying the school discriminated against him on the basis of a disability.

The settlement ''is an outcome that should weigh on the scale of causing less anxiety, less risk aversion, and not as much of a hair-trigger to remove students," said Gary Pavela, an official at the University of Maryland and author of a newsletter for college administrators on higher education law. ''It gives us more time in higher education to examine our policies . . . without the specter of legal fear that people have today."

Elizabeth Shin, a 19-year-old sophomore when she died, had a long history of emotional problems, of which MIT was aware. She had tried to commit suicide her freshman year by overdosing on Tylenol with codeine.

In the weeks before her death, she spoke with a number of MIT officials and counselors who documented her ''severe" depression and ''recurrent suicidal gestures," according to the summary judgment issued last June by Middlesex Superior Court Judge Christine M. McEvoy. On April 10, 2000, the day of Elizabeth Shin's death, two students informed her housemaster that she had told them she planned to kill herself that day. Several MIT mental health professionals discussed her case that day, and one scheduled an appointment for her on the following day at an off-campus psychiatric facility.

That night, she was found in her room, engulfed in flames. She died several days later.

A medical examiner ruled her death a suicide. But a court document that MIT filed in September 2004 mentioned in a footnote that the MIT administrators being sued expected to argue at trial that her death was accidental.

In their lawsuit, the Shins said MIT was negligent in treating their daughter and failed to take her suicide threats seriously enough. The parents also complained that MIT had failed to notify them that she was suicidal. MIT officials said they were respecting her confidentiality and that family pressures were part of her problems.

One aspect of the Elizabeth Shin case that particularly concerned many college officials was the judge's decision that administrators without mental health credentials could be held responsible for preventing suicide. Other courts have held that nonclinicians usually are not responsible to prevent suicide.

Twenty-three universities and eight national higher education associations filed three separate friend-of-the-court briefs on MIT's behalf.

Tracy Schario, spokeswoman for George Washington University, said MIT was sued when its troubled student died, while George Washington is being sued for taking steps it hoped would prevent such an outcome. George Washington forced a student to leave school after he went to the hospital reporting suicidal thoughts.

Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

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