Suicide Tragically Raises Issue of Litigation PR

Thom Weidlich 01.16.20


We recently came across a heartbreaking story that shows viscerally the importance of taking litigation communications seriously: A man involved in a lawsuit was so traumatized over the assault on his reputation (even though he wasn’t even a party), he committed suicide. It seems his lack of a public outlet to tell his side contributed.

David Bucci chaired the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, when seven female students filed a lawsuit alleging they were sexually harassed and assaulted by three professors. Bucci wasn’t one of them, but he was mentioned repeatedly in the complaint, accused of ignoring the students’ concerns and even trying to intimidate them, which he denied.

“He grew deeply distressed, his wife and closest colleagues said, especially after he was advised not to complicate the litigation by defending himself publicly,” New York Times reporter Anemona Hartocollis wrote in her story about Bucci. He was shunned by colleagues and called a “disgusting human being” in public.

An email to his lawyers showed Bucci’s concern with clearing his name. But according to a Dartmouth spokesman, Hartocollis wrote, “the college’s general counsel and public-relations office believed that the best way for him to tell his side of the story was not by speaking out but through the legal process, mainly Dartmouth’s point-by-point rebuttal to the complaint.” That rebuttal was in the form of a document called an “answer.”

If the professor’s suicide stemmed from his frustration over not being able to defend himself publicly, it only adds to the tragedy. We have written many times about the importance of public opinion. Typically this has been in the corporate context, but obviously it goes to individuals too.

It’s a truism that the filing of a lawsuit will usually get more attention than the response to it. This is especially so when the response is an answer, which simply denies or admits each alleged fact.

Little Fodder

Reporters find little fodder for an article in such documents. They will produce a piece if they’re desperate enough to write about the case or if it’s especially high profile.

In the Dartmouth case, the students sued Nov. 15, 2018. Dartmouth filed its answer Jan. 15, 2019. It received “little if any notice,” Hartocollis writes, though there was some coverage and the school put out a release on the filing.

Afterward, the case only got hotter. On May 1, two more women were added as anonymous plaintiffs. People called for Bucci’s resignation. With a history of depression, he started sliding and was soon hospitalized.

On Aug. 6, Dartmouth and the plaintiffs announced a $14 million proposed settlement. It didn’t include any statement of innocence on Bucci’s part. He committed suicide Oct. 15 at his home, less than a year after the suit was filed.

Photo Credit: Edward Fielding/Shutterstock

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