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.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Jury awards $3.5 million in case involving a wife getting exposed to asbestos in her husband's work clothes

A Washington state jury has awarded $3.5 million to the estate of a woman who died of mesothelioma she contracted from exposure to asbestos carried home on her husband’s work clothes.  AboutLawsuits has the story here.

Most asbestos cases involve plaintiffs who were exposed to asbestos at work, but the plaintiff in this case was exposed to asbestos due to her contact with her husband, who as a result of his work, carried asbestos fibers home on his work clothes.  In a case like this, the issue of whether the possible liability of the defendant should be limited to the person exposed to asbestos directly at work. In the end, the issue is one of proximate cause or duty. Should the duty of the defendant extend to include the injuries suffered by anyone exposed to the fibers, or just to the injuries of those exposed at work?

The case is similar to a case in California in which the jury awarded $27.3 million in damages, and a case in Illinios in which the court remanded the case to allow the plaintiff a chance to support its allegation of duty.  You can read my comment on those cases here.

Friday, May 15, 2015

G.M.’s Ignition Switch Death Toll Hits 100, but many claims may be dismissed because of the effect of the company's 2009 bankruptcy

The consequences of General Motors’ long-delayed recall of defective small cars hit a grim milestone recently, when the company’s compensation fund said it had approved the 100th death claim tied to faulty ignition switches. The toll far exceeds the 13 victims that G.M. had said last year were the only known fatalities linked to ignitions that could suddenly cut off engine power and disable airbags.  The New York Times has the full story here. However, a large number of lawsuits filed against GM may be dismissed following a recent bankruptcy court ruling blocking lawsuits filed against General Motors over actions that predate its 2009 bankruptcy, declaring that “New GM” and “Old GM” are two different companies and that the new company is not liable for the actions of the old one. AboutLawsuits has that story here.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Comment on new book on tort reform and health care costs

The PopTort has a good comment on Steven Brill's new book on health care, called “America's Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System,” in which he concludes, apparently without attempting to support that conclusison, that “Democrats resistance to ‘sensible Tort reform’” is a major reason why we have out of control health care costs.  As anyone who has been paying attention to the topic of tort reform and health care over the last few years know, this claim is not supported by the evidence.  And so it was pointed out in a recent Sunday New York Times book review of “America’s Bitter Pill.”   The PopTort has a comment on the book and the book review here.

For more on the issue of tort reform and medical costs go to my section on med mal (here) and scroll down.  Be patient and take your time.  There are more than 200 posts in that section including many with links to studies and reports clearly debunking the mythical relationship between tort reform and health care costs.