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Harvard, Plaintiff File Cross Motions Over Evidence in Wrongful Death Lawsuit

Visitors and students walk along paths through Harvard Yard Tuesday morning.
Visitors and students walk along paths through Harvard Yard Tuesday morning. By Aiyana G. White
By Juliet E. Isselbacher and Amanda Y. Su, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard and the plaintiff in a 2018 wrongful death lawsuit filed dueling motions over whether a set of University documents and other materials will be subject to discovery on Jan. 27.

The suit alleges that the University and some of its employees were negligent in their care of a Harvard undergraduate, Luke Z. Tang ’18, who died by suicide in September 2015. Wendell W. Tang — Luke’s father — filed the suit on behalf of his son in September 2018.

Harvard’s proposed protective order would designate certain “sensitive” discovery materials in the litigation to safeguard them from being used for “any ulterior or unauthorized purpose.” The materials at issue include student and personnel records, as well as “non-public materials about the approaches Harvard takes to prevent student suicides” and “internal, non-public policies and procedures relating to safety, security, and residential life,” according to Harvard’s motion.

“The proposed protective order contains the most fundamental safeguard in any litigation for all discovery produced—that discovery may be used for only for the purpose of the litigation and not for any ulterior or unauthorized purpose,” Harvard’s lawyers wrote.

In response, Wendell Tang’s lawyers argued that the University is attempting to “preemptively” keep discovery materials confidential and impose an unfair burden of proof on the plaintiff.

Wendell Tang’s motion further alleges that Harvard’s proposed sealing of documents would violate Massachusetts law, which they argue supports the disclosure of information which may be in the public interest.

“Harvard wants to limit public access, including to parents of students whom they are sending away from home for the first time, to information concerning mental health issues confronted by college students, the availability of mental health services and occurrences of student suicide,” his lawyers wrote.

“No defendant should be allowed to shield itself from future liability of future change by hiding its knowledge of risk behind unilateral confidentiality agreements and by blocking disclosure of information acquired during a lawsuit to that lawsuit,” Tang’s motion added. “Sunshine is an effective disinfectant.”

Asked for comment, University spokesperson Rachael Dane referred to Harvard’s reply in the case, which argued that Tang’s estate conflated documents filed in court with discovery materials produced by parties in litigation.

In addition to suing the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — Tang brought suit against residential dean Catherine R. Shapiro, Lowell House Resident Dean Caitlin Casey, Harvard University Health Services mental health counselor Melanie G. Northrop, and HUHS psychiatrist David W. Abramson, for “negligence and carelessness” resulting in Tang’s death.

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.

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