Saturday, November 4, 2017

Tennessee Court of Appeals reverses summary judgment in case on whether suicide should be considered a superseding cause

Many jurisdictions, including Illinois, consider suicide a superseding cause that eliminates the plaintiff's ability to support a prima facie case for wrongful death.  I have always thought this is wrong because whether the act of committing suicide should be considered to be foreseeable depends on the circumstances.

For that reason, I am happy to see that at least one court has decided to follow what I think is the better approach to the issue.  Day on Torts is reporting that in a case called In re Estate of Cotten, decided last September, the Tennessee Court of Appeals decided that the trial court was wrong to grant summary judgment because the issue of foreseeability of the suicide was for the jury to decide.

In that case, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant was negligent when he showed the decedent a gun he had at home and failed to properly store the gun in order to prevent accessibility to the gun given that the defendant (who happened to be a psychiatrist) knew that the decedent had attempted suicide in the past, and that she was suffering from depression.  The defendant showed the gun to the decedent on the same day he decided to tell her he wanted to end their relationship, and she used the gun to end her life about two weeks later.

Given these circumstances, the Court concluded:
Based on Decedent’s history of depression and previous suicide attempt, coupled with the loss of custodial rights concerning her son and the termination of her relationship with [defendant], it was reasonably foreseeable that Decedent might inflict harm upon herself by utilizing the deadly weapon of which [defendant] made her aware. [Defendant’s] act of showing the firearm to Decedent and then returning it to an unsecured location within the home created an unreasonable risk of harm to Decedent. We further conclude that the degree of foreseeability of the risk and the gravity of the harm outweighed the burden that would be imposed if [defendant] had engaged in an alternative course of conduct that would have prevented the harm.
The court identified the question as an issue related to the element of duty, but it very well could have addressed it as an issue of superseding cause related to the element of proximate cause.  As we all learned from Cardozo and Andrews in Palsgraf, duty and proximate cause are two sides of the same coin.

On that issue, the court stated:
In this action, with regard to causation, we determine that reasonable minds could draw more than one conclusion regarding causation. …Prior cases establish that liability could exist when a defendant knew or should have known that the decedent presented a reasonably foreseeable risk of suicide, as demonstrated by evidence indicating that the decedent’s demeanor or actions should have raised concerns about her mental stability and that the defendant’s actions increased such risk. …We therefore determine that because a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding causation, summary judgment was improperly granted on the basis of lack of causation.
As I said, some jurisdictions often find that suicide is unforseeable per se; but the analysis applied by the court in this case is both more logical and more consistent with general principles of tort law.  I wish other jurisdictions would follow it. 

You can read more about the case in Day on Torts.

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