Sunday, April 5, 2015

Illinois Supreme Court considers whether to recognize a cause of action for wrongful death as a result of intentional infliction of emotional distress when the decedent commits suicide

About two weeks ago, the Illinois Supreme Court heard oral arguments in an interesting case that asks the court to recognize a cause of action for wrongful death when the death was caused by the decedent's suicide.  The case is called Turcios v DeBruler Company.

Illinois has decided that, in the context of a negligence claim, a suicide is unforeseeable, which means that it operates as a superseding cause that defeats the element of proximate cause.  This makes it almost impossible for a plaintiff to recover for wrongful death in a case involving suicide if the claim is based on negligence.  Turcios, however, was brought as an intentional tort claim based on intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Much of the oral argument is devoted to the question of whether "proximate cause" should be considered to be an element in an intentional tort claim.  If so, the defendant argues, there is no cause of action because it has already been decided that a suicide is a superseding cause that defeats the element of proximate cause.  If not, the plaintiff argues, all that matters is whether the intentional conduct is a cause in fact of the injury in which case the plaintiff can establish the prima facie case.

The plaintiff's position is consistent with the typical analysis in other jurisdictions.  In intentional torts cases, proximate cause is typically not an issue.  As Diamond, et al, state in Understanding Torts (4th ed.), p. 188:
"Proximate cause rarely becomes a factor in intentional torts cases, because those cases do not ordinarily test the limits of what should constitute legal responsibility.  Authority is sparse as to when, if ever, proximate cause will preclude liability for intentional torts. In light of the greater culpability inherent in intentional wrongdoing, court appear, at the very least, ready to stretch to find liability."
And this is precisely what the plaintiff in Turcios is arguing: that because of the significant difference in terms of culpability between conduct that is negligent and conduct that is intentional, the notion of cause in intentional torts cases should not be limited by the analysis of proximate cause.

However, the plaintiff's argument is not necessarily consistent with the language used by the Illinois Supreme Court in the past.  While in many states courts say that a plaintiff in an intentional tort case must show simply "causation," (and usually appear to interpret this to mean only cause in fact), the Illinois Supreme Court has stated the plaintiff must show "proximate cause" usually then adding that proximate cause means cause in fact and legal cause.

You can listen to the oral argument here.  (Note it is very unusual in that the justices do not ask a single question during the appellant's argument!)

UPDATE:  5/16/15 The Appellate Strategist has a a comment on the case here.

UPDATE: 5/21/15:  The Illinois Supreme Court issued its opinion on the case today.  Go here to read my comment on the opinion and for a link to the opinion itself.

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