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The Background to Jim Kim’s Nightmare

“My nightmare is that someone dies with a .396 blood alcohol level … and then I have to call the parents the next morning, and the mother is a public health physician, and the father is a lawyer.” Jim Kim, speaking to the faculty on October 25, 2010

President Kim’s remark at the October faculty meeting has always puzzled me. I had assumed that Kim was referring to an entirely hypothetical situation. But that is not the case. In fact, he was referring quite directly, and in all aspects, to the tragic death at Northwestern University on June 10, 2008 of Matthew Sunshine, a freshman who died after imbibing 17 shots of vodka in a drinking game. His fellow students did not call for emergency help; they simply put Sunshine to bed, and he was dead by morning.

As the D reported: “Kim told faculty that he had spoken with Matthew’s mother, public health physician Suzanne Fields.” That solves the maternal part of the equation. Fields is a professor at SUNY Stony Brook. But why did Jim Kim refer to his fear of the father being a lawyer?

Sunshine1.JPGWell, it turns out that Matthew Sunshine’s father is, indeed, an attorney, and as The Daily Northwestern reported, “Jeffrey Sunshine [right] readily admitted that in the days after the death [of his son], he ‘wanted to take (NU) for every penny’ he could.”

As it turns out, he did pretty much that. Within a couple of months of his son’s death, Sunshine had engaged the Clifford Law Offices, the most successful personal injury litigators in Illinois. After two years of negotiation — it is unclear whether a legal suit was ever actually filed — Sunshine signed a settlement with Northwestern in late September, 2010 that called for NU to pay $2 million to the Sunshine family and implement a list of 10 policy and practical steps to reduce student binge drinking. Sunshine told The Daily Northwestern that “most of the money will be given to charity.” He also commented that “he believes the family could have gotten much more money if it wanted.”

The progress of negotiations between the Sunshine family and Northwestern turned on the posture of NU’s President. According to the Daily Northwestern:

Settlement negotiations picked up dramatically when [President Morton] Schapiro took over for retiring president Henry Bienen in the fall of 2009, Jeffrey Sunshine said.

“No progress was made until Schapiro arrived,” said the father, who enthusiastically praised the new president but declined to comment on Bienen.

While condolences from the university to the Sunshine family are appropriate in the face of the infinitely sad event, it is hard to believe that NU’s new President was acting responsibly in agreeing to such a settlement. The university itself was not serving liquor in the situation that led to Sunshine’s death. At what point does a university’s liability end and an individual’s personal responsibility begin? It seems that today at NU, there really is no distinction.


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