Thursday, May 21, 2015

Illinois Supreme Court holds proximate cause applies to intentional tort claims, which precludes claim for death caused by suicide but contradicts itself in the process

Back in April I wrote a comment on an oral argument before the Illinois Supreme Court in an interesting case that asked the court to recognize a cause of action for wrongful death when the defendant’s alleged intentional infliction of emotional distress caused the decedent to commit suicide.  As I explained there, Illinois has decided that, in the context of a negligence claim, a suicide is unforeseeable as a matter of law, which means that it always operates as a superseding cause that defeats the element of proximate cause.  What made the case before the Court different, however, is that it was brought as an intentional tort claim based on intentional infliction of emotional distress.  The case is called Turcios v. DeBruler Company

In my original post, I quoted a popular Torts hornbook which states that “[a]uthority 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."

It is now clear that the Illinois Supreme Court is not willing, much less, ready, to make this “stretch.”  In reaching its decision, the Court first concluded that the concept of foreseeability, embodied in the doctrine of proximate causation, limits the liability of both negligent and intentional tortfeasors, holding that “[p]laintiffs’ view, under which legal cause plays no role in the liability of an intentional tortfeasor, essentially creates open ended and limitless liability for injury, no matter how abnormal, extraordinary, irregular, or remote the injury may be.” [Interestingly, the court noted that plaintiffs conceded during the oral argument that some line drawing must be made, and that an intentional tortfeasor is not necessarily liable for all  consequences flowing from the defendant’s conduct. You can listen to the oral argument here.]

Having decided that intentional tort liability should be limited by applying the concept of proximate cause, the Court then applied the proximate cause analysis to the context of the case and concluded, as it has done consistently in the past, that because the death of the decedent was the result of a suicide, it was unforseeable, and therefore the plaintiff failed to satisfy the element of proximate cause.

In reaching this conclusion, however, and perhaps without noticing it, the Court contradicts its long held position on suicide and opens the door for future arguments against it when it states:
"Because an intentional tortfeasor’s liability is limited by the concept of foreseeability embodied in the doctrine of proximate causation, a cause of action for wrongful death predicated on a suicide allegedly brought about by the intentional infliction of emotional distress is subject to the general rule that suicide is unforeseeable as a matter of law. Thus, the plaintiff bears a heavy burden of pleading and proving facts that would overcome application of the rule.

....

Accordingly, we hold that where, as here, a plaintiff seeks to recover damages for wrongful death based on the decedent’s suicide allegedly brought about through the intentional infliction of emotional distress, the plaintiff must . . . plead facts which, if proven, would overcome application of the general rule that suicide is deemed unforeseeable as a matter of law. In other words, a plaintiff must plead facts demonstrating that the suicide was foreseeable, i.e., that it was a likely result of the defendant’s conduct."
Here is what I find interesting about this.  If a plaintiff can argue that the suicide is foreseeable, then by definition, the suicide is no longer unforeseeable as a matter of law.  If it can be argued that in some cases it is foreseeable while it is not in others, then the court is implying that reasonable people could disagree as to whether it is foreseeable at all, making the question one for the jury.  Doesn't that, by definition take the question out of the realm of "a matter of law"?  And, if this is the case, then what the court is implying is that when applying the proximate cause analysis to cases where the injury is death by suicide, the analysis should be the same as in all other cases, ie, to determine if the injury is a foreseeable consequence of the risk created by the conduct.

Thus, the way I am reading this, while reiterating its long held position on whether suicide is foreseeable, the court is actually abandoning it.

The case is Turcios v. DeBruler Company and you can read the opinion here.

No comments: