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November 1, 2022

Parents of former Vanderbilt student Brian Adams file wrongful death lawsuit against university

Bart and Josephine Adams maintain that senior Brian Adams’s suicide in July 2021 resulted from “gross negligence” by UCC service providers and Vanderbilt administrators.
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Barrie Barto
The counseling center at Vanderbilt, as photographed on Nov. 9, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto)

Editor’s note: This article includes extensive mention of suicidal ideation and suicide.

The parents of Brian Adams, a former member of the Class of 2022, filed a civil lawsuit in Middle Tennessee’s federal district court on Jan. 3 seeking at least $95,884.44 in damages for the “wrongful death” of their son. The complaint claims that the university failed to appropriately respond to Adams’s alleged suicide attempt on Nov. 13, 2020 — contributing to his eventual death by suicide on July 4, 2021 — and attempted to conceal its liability after his death. 

Vanderbilt University, the Board of Trust and Chancellor Daniel Diermeier are among the named defendants in the suit, which claims that the UCC therapist who allegedly treated Adams was unlicensed and failed to properly care for him. The complaint also accuses university administrators of alleged destruction of records, including security footage from the day of Adams’s death and his UCC intake form, as well as alleged failure to accommodate Adams academically. 

The therapist declined to comment on the situation; the UCC, Office of the Chancellor and Board of Trust directed The Hustler to a university representative. The university representative said the complaint’s characterization of the university’s actions is “inaccurate” and that Vanderbilt denies wrongdoing in Adams’s death. 

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“Though we understand and feel deeply this family’s loss and the loss of one of our students, we do not believe the university has any liability in this case,” the representative said. “The complaint’s portrayal of the university’s handling of this tragic situation is inaccurate.” 

Adams’s parents are representing themselves in the case and seeking a jury trial in Tennessee, pursuant to the Tennessee Wrongful Death Act. The statute of limitations for wrongful death claims in Tennessee is one year from the person’s death. Because Adams passed away over a year before the lawsuit was filed, the claim may not be eligible for a jury trial. 

The parents’ phone number — as listed on the lawsuit — was answered by an individual who claimed to be Adams’s uncle, while its voicemail box redirected to Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital. Adams’ parents did not respond to The Hustler’s email request for comment. 

Allegations

The lawsuit states that Adams first expressed suicidal ideation to the UCC therapist during his first UCC appointment on Nov. 12, 2020. The plaintiffs take issue with how the therapist allegedly did not take steps to make sure Adams was not alone after he expressed these feelings. According to the lawsuit, Vanderbilt claims that HIPAA policies prevent the UCC from notifying emergency contacts in this situation. However, the university representative said HIPAA does not apply in this case because the university is not a medical entity, and, as such, is bound by FERPA, not HIPAA. 

According to the Student Handbook, the university can inform appropriate individuals — such as legal guardians, health care personnel and the police — of a student’s records if the information is necessary to protect the health or safety of the student or other individuals, even if the student has not consented to the disclosure.

The lawsuit further alleges that the therapist “encouraged Brian to commit suicide as a sign of love” during a Zoom UCC appointment on Nov. 13, 2020. It further states that the therapist and at least one other UCC employee watched Adams attempt to commit suicide by hanging himself in his EBI dorm room during the Nov. 13 call. The therapist, the other UCC employee(s) and Vanderbilt employees, according to the complaint, allegedly waited until the next day before reporting the suicide attempt to VUPD. 

According to the lawsuit, Adams expressed his suicidality to Vanderbilt health and safety professionals at least five times between November 2020 and July 2021 and attempted suicide in his dorm once more during that time period on an undisclosed date. It states that the university did not provide him with support programs or enforce policies that “complied with the most current professional standards.”

“Short of wearing a neon sign that he planned to commit suicide, Brian was all but begging Vanderbilt for help,” the lawsuit states. “Appallingly, Vanderbilt did not just fail him, it intentionally killed him.”

The plaintiffs claim that Vanderbilt committed “systemic discrimination” against Adams due to his mental health disabilities, which they believe violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. An alleged lack of housing and coursework accommodations, as well as the university’s “punitive” course withdrawal policies, are mentioned in the suit as examples of such discrimination.

Among the lawsuit’s claims, the plaintiffs allege that the university attempted to conceal liability in Adams’s death by hiding and/or destroying security videos, health records and VUPD and UCC incident reports from Adams’s November 2020 suicide attempt. The filing also claims that Adams’s Summer 2021 residential advisor “intentionally” failed to perform suicide prevention checks on Adams as “mandated by national established criteria and/or best practices to prevent suicide.” The named RA confirmed that they were Adams’s RA during Summer 2021 but were never made aware by the Office of Housing and Residential Experience of Adams’s medical history nor instructed to perform any wellness checks as an RA. OHARE declined The Hustler’s request to comment on the matter.

The lawsuit also states that the UCC prescribed Adams medication that the plaintiffs claim caused brain damage. It does not specify which medication was prescribed or give details about the alleged brain damage. 

Mental health at Vanderbilt

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Vanderbilt students have expressed concerns about the quality of mental health resources at the university. In May 2022, a group of 47 graduate students in the Department of Biomedical Sciences published an open letter detailing a “crisis” of mental health in the department after four students allegedly died of self-inflicted wounds in a span of two years. Students who wrote the letter described the UCC’s services as “inadequate” in serving the entire university. 

In an Aug. 24 statement to The Hustler, a university representative reiterated that Vanderbilt is invested in the mental health of the Vanderbilt community. The statement referenced the expansion of offerings by the UCC since the pandemic and encouraged students to take full advantage of its resources. In August 2022, a university representative further stated that the Office of Student Affairs had recently hired 10 new Student Care Network staff members to increase “access to health care for students.” 

“Counselors at our University Counseling Center are trained professionals committed to providing holistic, inclusive and accessible mental health and prevention services to support the academic and personal success of our diverse student community,” the university representative said.

This story was originally published on The Vanderbilt Hustler on January 26, 2023.