Monday, August 26, 2019

Recent Tennessee case holds suicide is a superseding cause

A couple of days ago I posted a comment about a couple of recent claims based on deaths by suicide.  Sadly suicide is a serious health issue.  There are over 40,000 suicides a year in the U.S., making suicide the tenth-leading cause of death in the country, which raises an interesting question for courts:  if the risk of suicide is known, can it be said that someone committing suicide is always unforeseeable?

I have published many stories on the issues raised by claims based on suicide over the years.  You can go here and scroll down to read them.  In a recent one I commented on an article that argues it is time to change the way courts approach suicide as a superseding cause that eliminates the right of a plaintiff to recovery -- a view I happen to agree with.

I am writing about this today because I just read about a new opinion out of Tennessee that provides the most recent and fairly comprehensive discussion on whether the act of committing suicide should be considered to be a superseding cause.  The case is called Cotten v. Wilson and you can read the opinion here.

As you may know already, some jurisdictions consider suicide a superseding cause per se, in all cases, while others presume it is a superseding but would consider evidence to support the claim that the presumption should be defeated.

Tennessee appears to be in the second camp.  According to the case, courts in Tennessee have generally held that suicide will be deemed a superseding cause of death if it was ‘a willful, calculated, and deliberate act of one who has the power of choice based on the notion that no reasonable person could foresee that a rational person would intentionally choose to commit suicide. But, courts would consider the conduct foreseeable under different circumstances including (1) where it is reasonably foreseeable that the defendant’s conduct will cause a mental condition in the decedent that would lead to the self-destructive act, (2) where the suicide occurs in a custodial context, (3) where there was a special relationship between the defendant and decedent, and (4) situations in which the defendant facilitated the suicide by supplying the decedent with the means to carry it out.

The case involved a woman and a psychiatrist who had been in a relationship.  The psychiatrist knew that the woman had attempted to commit suicide in the past, but nevertheless allowed her to stay in his home alone with an unsecured gun.

It seems to me that it is not too far fetched to argue that suicide could be considered to be foreseeable under those circumstances.  Yet, the Tennessee Supreme Court dismissed the claim holding that the “suicide constitutes a superseding intervening event that breaks the chain of proximate causation.”  One judge filed a dissenting opinion, which you can read here.

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