Post Date: August 30, 2006

A group of Harvard Law students has helped to bring about a landmark decision by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which ruled earlier this month that the Brazilian government bears responsibility for the death of a patient in a state-affiliated psychiatric hospital.

The ruling, issued on August 17, follows months of work by three students who teamed up with James Cavallaro, clinical professor and clinical director of the HLS Human Rights Program. In November 2005, Cavallaro and students Fernando Delgado, Jonathan Kaufman and Deborah Popowski, traveled to Costa Rica to litigate the case of Damião Ximenes Lopes, a man with mental health disabilities who was beaten and later found dead in a Brazilian-run hospital.

As part of their work, the students reviewed almost 4,000 pages of documents pertaining to the case, and took lead roles in interviewing Damião’s family and other witnesses, writing questions and advising lead affiliated attorneys on legal strategy, and working with the Brazilian NGO Justiça Global, which carried the case through the Court.

“The court issued its sentence and we won on all fronts,” said Cavallaro. “This is the first time the Inter-American Court has addressed the issue of mental health disabilities. The students’ work is very clearly present in the sentence.”

The decision, which is believed to be the first of its kind in South America, said that Brazil violated its obligations to respect and guarantee human rights, violated the right to life and personal integrity, and violated the family’s right to judicial protection and guarantees. The Inter-American Court on Human Rights, the highest tribunal within the Organization of American States, ordered Brazil to pay compensation to Damião’s family.

To read more about the involvement of HLS students in the Damiao case, see a related story in the April 2006 edition of Harvard Law Today.