Alleged “Institutional Bullying” by Stanford Targeted in Wrongful Death Suit by Athlete’s Family

December 6, 2022
Anna E. Bullock, Susan Stone and Kristina Supler
soccer field

Stanford soccer star goalie and team captain Katie Meyer committed suicide on February 28, 2022. On the night of her death, Stanford had sent Meyer a formal notice informing her that a formal disciplinary hearing against her was to move forward. The notice also indicated that the discipline process jeopardized her graduation just three months away, throwing Meyer’s aspirations of attending Stanford Law School into question.

Institutional Bullying

Shortly before her suicide, Meyer appeared to be in good spirits, making plans for spring break and facetiming her mother and sisters. Later on, she received a formal notice from Stanford alleging that she had violated Stanford’s “Fundamental Standard” in an incident the prior fall “resulting in injury.” The disciplinary case against Meyer concerned incident in August of 2021, in which Meyer allegedly spilled coffee on a Stanford football player. Meyer believed the football player had sexually assaulted her teammate.

Meyer’s parents, Gina and Steve Meyer, filed a wrongful death suit against Stanford last week (the “Complaint”), alleging that the disciplinary process against their daughter constituted a form of “institutional bullying” and negligent infliction of emotional distress that contributed to her death. The Complaint alleges that Meyer made an impulsive and unplanned decision to end her own life when faced with the prospect of potential expulsion as written in the notice letter from Stanford. Stanford has formally responded to the allegations, denying any responsibility for Meyer’s suicide.

Addressing and Student’s Emotional and Psychological Needs

Students facing any disciplinary processes are, without question, under tremendous stress and pressure. In Meyer’s case, when combined with the stresses of being a top-caliber student, star NCAA athlete trying out for the USA soccer team, and managing social dynamics involved in sex and dating, Meyer doubtlessly needed additional support that she found to be lacking.

At the heart of the allegations in the Meyer family’s wrongful death lawsuit is an allegation that Stanford was deliberately indifferent to Meyers’ emotional and psychological needs, contributing to a tragic and untimely death. This “deliberate indifference” will be a familiar refrain to practitioners in the Title IX space, who will recall the phrase from Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, 524 U.S. 274 (1988), setting forth the standard for Title IX liability and requiring that schools first be on notice that a student is experiencing harassment in violation of Title IX before they can be found responsible for it.

In the Meyer case, the deliberate indifference argument is applied much differently, and will depend on1) whether Meyer’s suicide was foreseeable and 2) whether a special relationship between a university and a student will give rise to additional duties of care in handling a discipline case. See, e.g., Regents of the University of California v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County (Rosen), S230568, 2018 WL 1415703, (Cal. March 22, 2018)(holding a special relationship requires a university to protect students from foreseeable risks of violence).

Did Stanford Know of Potential Risk?

What remains to be seen is whether Stanford knew (or should have known) of Meyer’s suicide risk when it issued its disciplinary notice after hours and, as outlined in the complaint, when emergency counseling services and support may not have been readily accessible.

KJK’s Student and Athlete Defense attorneys are very familiar with the varied issues and challenges experienced by students in disciplinary proceedings, and have handled cases of student wrongful death. Offering students appropriate mental health support and guidance through disciplinary processes is of the utmost importance. It is important to recognize that students are often hesitant to seek out supports from the very institutions that they see as the causes of their stress.

Having a skilled advisor as well as an independent support system can be key to ensure students’ wellbeing in times of crisis. For more information or to discuss further, please contact the attorneys in KJK’s Student and Athlete Defense practice group.