Almost six years after the death of Wharton student Ao "Olivia" Kong and four years after her parents sued Penn for failing to prevent her suicide, the civil trial between Kong's parents and the Penn Board of Trustees ended in a private settlement on Thursday, Feb. 10 — just two days after it began.
Kong, who was a Wharton junior at the time, took her own life on April 11, 2016. Her parents, Xianguo Kong and Zhao Li, filed a lawsuit against Penn in 2018, alleging that the University did not take proper action to prevent her death after she had told Penn officials on nine different occasions that she was having suicidal thoughts. The exact amount of the settlement was undisclosed to the public.
Director of Media Relations Ron Ozio declined to comment on the trial and settlement, stating that the University does not comment on lawsuits.
The trial was held in the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court and was expected to last several weeks, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Testimonies began on Wednesday, Feb. 9 and included over two hours of video deposition from John Stein, Kong’s then-psychiatrist at Penn's Counseling and Psychological Services.
Following Kong’s death, students criticized Penn for their handling of the situation and failure to prioritize mental health on campus. Since 2013, at least 14 Penn community members have died by suicide, including then-Executive Director of CAPS Gregory Eells.
Stein testified that he and Kong spoke multiple times about her suicidal thoughts in the days leading up to her suicide. He testified that he did not think it was “clinically warranted” to break patient confidentiality to inform her parents or compel her to go to an emergency room, the Inquirer reported.
Stein also testified that either the Saturday or Sunday before Kong's death, he contacted CAPS Director William Alexander because he was concerned about Kong's safety and mental distress. However, he said that he received no reply and that he did not follow-up about the inquiry.
“Did you have some concern in your own mind in terms of what role you may have played in her death?” Carol Nelson Shepherd, the lawyer representing Kong’s parents, asked Stein during the testimony.
Stein responded, "Yes."
Nicole Nardone, a triage clinician who saw Kong on April 7, 2016 — days before her suicide — was also heard by jurors on Feb. 9.
Nardone testified that in the days leading up to her death, she had helped Kong begin the process of withdrawing from a class. She said that she did not feel it was necessary at the time to contact her parents or schedule an immediate appointment with another counselor, The Inquirer reported.