Elizabeth Shin (February 16, 1980 – April 16, 2000) was a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student who died from burns inflicted by a fire in her dormitory room. Her death led to a lawsuit against MIT and controversy as to whether MIT paid adequate attention to its students' mental and emotional health, and whether MIT's suicide rate was abnormally high. Although her death was first thought to be a suicide, both MIT and her parents have stated that it may have been an accident as a stipulation of the amicable settlement between MIT and the Shins.
On April 10, 2000, a student named Andrew Thomas heard a smoke alarm in Elizabeth's dorm room. Although the door was locked, Andrew could smell smoke and could hear crying coming from within the room. When MIT police broke down the door, they saw Elizabeth "engulfed in flames, flailing on the floor in the middle of her room." Sixty-five percent of her body was covered in third-degree burns and she died several days later.
On January 28, 2002, Shin's family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the school and several administrators and employees. They accused the school of "breaching its 'promise' to provide an appropriate medical diagnosis and treatment of Shin, as well as reasonable security, emergency services and level of care." In their lawsuit, Shin's family alleged that despite numerous warning signs, such as sending emails to faculty members saying that she was depressed and wanted to kill herself, she received minimal attention. MIT counseling services sometimes relegated duty to her parents, discharged her with minimal treatment, or failed to take action in response to her emails. Shin's parents say that their daughter's death was the 10th of 12 suicides committed by MIT students since 1990 and was foreseeable by the school's Administrators and its Mental Health Services employees.
As part of its defense, MIT implied that Shin's mental health problems started before she entered MIT, including a possible suicide attempt when Shin did not become valedictorian of her graduating class.
After the incident, MIT announced an upgrade of its student counseling programs, including more staff members and longer hours. However, the Shins claimed these measures were not enough and filed a $27.65 million lawsuit against MIT, administrators, campus police officers, and its mental health employees. MIT and campus police officers were cleared of wrongdoing in June 2005, but the case against MIT administrators and mental health employees continued. The Shins' lawyer David Deluca commented that the counts against MIT might have been limited by the "immunity that the institution enjoys" as an educational institution.
MIT continued to deny wrongdoing. According to MIT's lawyer Jeffrey Swopes, "The death of Elizabeth Shin was a tragedy -- for this bright young woman, her family and friends, and all those at MIT who tried to help her... But it was not the fault of MIT or anyone who works at MIT."
On April 3, 2006, MIT announced that the case with the family of Elizabeth Shin had been settled before trial for an undisclosed amount. Through MIT, the Shins released a statement, saying, "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. This agreement will allow us to move forward in the healing process."
The Shins' lawyer stated that the results of a toxicology test indicated that Elizabeth had overdosed on a nonprescription medication prior to the fire that could have prevented her from responding appropriately to its outbreak. This evidence may have played a part in the Shins' later admission that Elizabeth's death was an accident.
Shin's death was the tenth apparent suicide at MIT since 1990, provoking controversy as to whether MIT's suicide rate is abnormally high.
According to an unreferenced 2011 article in the Boston Globe, MIT's suicide rate is not higher than other colleges, refuting an earlier Boston Globe article cited in the New York Times. The picture is made muddier by conflicting studies, unequal comparisons, the sparse nature of the event of suicide compared to everyday activities over months or years, conflicts of interest of reporting parties, and changes in the attitude and actions of academic administrations over the decades.
MIT Chancellor Phillip Clay announced the trial settlement with this message to the community on April 3, 2006:
To Members of the MIT Community:
As most of you know, the family of Elizabeth Shin had brought a lawsuit against MIT and some members of the student life staff and medical staff following the death of their daughter in April 2000. The suit against the university itself was dismissed in June 2005 and a trial date for the remaining claims was set for May 1, 2006.
With the trial date approaching, Elizabeth's parents, Cho and Kisuk Shin, have agreed in a settlement with MIT to dismiss all of their claims, saying that they have come to understand that their daughter's death was likely a tragic accident.
We know nothing can erase the pain of losing their daughter. Elizabeth's death was a tragedy for her family, her friends and all those at MIT who tried to help her. Indeed, the death of a student is one of the most painful losses a college community can suffer.
We are very grateful to our colleagues in Student Life and MIT Medical who devote themselves to the well-being of our students with an extraordinary level of caring and professionalism. This agreement will spare all of them the further distress of an emotional trial.
Phillip L. Clay
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