On November 4, 2003, Terence Leary, a Wesleyan University (Wesleyan) student and pitcher on the school’s baseball team, called the campus public safety officers complaining about a panic attack he was experiencing. Although Terence was transported by the officers to a nearby hospital, they simply dropped him off and departed “without further investigating or securing medical attention for him.” Soon thereafter, Terence left the hospital because he “couldn’t take it” and committed suicide by drowning in a nearby creek. His death “sent ripples across the campus.”
Terence’s family elected to sue Wesleyan under a negligence theory, arguing that the school “(1) hired and retained inadequate safety personnel; (2) failed to properly train its security personnel; and (3) did not follow appropriate measures for handling distressed students.” It further alleged:
[T]he security personnel (1) knew or should have known that Terence Leary was in a distressed condition, had suicidal tendencies and was a threat to himself, and they failed to investigate or provide Leary with adequate care; (2) failed to make sure Terence Leary received adequate treatment at the hospital; and (3) the university failed to conduct a proper investigation into Leary’s mental history.
Wesleyan filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking dismissal of the lawsuit. It countered that Terence’s death was caused by his own negligent actions; thus, they were not liable. It further contended that it owed no duty to Terence because the law does not recognize a special relationship between a university and its students.
Connecticut law does not recognize a general duty to protect others from harming themselves, unless there is a special relationship between the two parties. A “duty arises particularly in special relationships where the plaintiff is typically in some respect particularly vulnerable and dependent upon the defendant who, correspondingly, holds considerable power over the plaintiff’s welfare.” Thus, a threshold inquiry is whether one party had custody or control of the other party.
In this case, the Court found that the public safety officers, as agents of Wesleyan, had custody or control of Terence, because their “status as police officers created the perception that they controlled the situation.” As such, they had the ability to prevent Terence from leaving the hospital prior to receiving medical attention. The Court went to great length describing liability for “gratuitously undertaking to render services to another… [which is] based on the control that the individual has in the circumstances, and the power he assumes over the plaintiff’s welfare.” A person will be liable for negligent performance of this undertaking because “one [who] takes charge and control of [a] situation… is regarded as entering into a relation which is attenuated with responsibility.” The Court further noted the great extent to which Wesleyan provided emergency services and information to its student body, and found that the officer’s actions actually increased the risk of harm to Terence.
Finally, the Court determined that Terence’s suicide was foreseeable, even though he had not previously made any threats on the night of his death or beforehand. Based on the transcript of Terence’s emergency phone call, a security expert for the plaintiff testified that “[Wesleyan’s] public safety officials should have recognized that [Terence] was in a mental crisis and could have been harmful to himself,” but failed to follow the provisions of Wesleyan’s own public policy manual that specifically addresses how to handle student mental health crises. As the Court further noted, these policies “provided evidence that the defendant was aware that suicide was a general risk, when dealing with an individual who was in mental distress.” Thus, the motion for summary judgment was denied as to the negligence claim because of genuine issues of material fact related to control and custody of Terence and his mental distress when he placed the emergency call.
Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.
This case was not handled by our firm. However, if you have any questions regarding this case, or any education matter, please contact Joseph Maya at 203-221-3100 or by email at JMaya@MayaLaw.com.
Should you have any questions regarding negligence liability or any education law matter, please do not hesitate to contact Joseph Maya, Managing Partner (recognized by The Best Lawyers in America©) or the other experienced attorneys at Maya Law today at (203) 221-3100 or by email at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.
 “Friends, family unite to share memories of Leary,” by Miriam Gottfried. Published November 14, 2003. http://wesleyanargus.com/2003/11/14/friends-family-unite-to-share-memories-of-leary/
 “Student’s death stuns Wesleyan community,” by Miriam Gottfried. Published November 7, 2003. http://wesleyanargus.com/2003/11/07/student%E2%80%99s-death-stuns-wesleyan-community/
 Douglas Leary v. Wesleyan University, 2009 Conn. Super. LEXIS 621 at 2.
 Coville v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, 57 Conn. App. 275, 281 (2000).
 Leary, supra at 12-13.
 Id. at 17-18, citing McClure v. Fairfield University, Superior Court, judicial district of Waterbury, Docket No. CV 000159028 (June 19, 2003, Gallagher, J.) (35 Conn. L. Rptr. 169, 2003 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1778)
 Coville, supra 57 Conn. App. 281.
 McClure, supra, 35 Conn. L. Rptr. 169, 2003 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1778.
 Leary, supra, at 22-23.
 Id. at 27.
 Id. at 33.