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    Personal Injury and Insurance Law Legal Research Blog

    PERSONAL INJURY: Suicide as Intervening Event

    Posted by John M. Stone on Fri, Sep 22, 2017 @ 11:09 AM

    John Stone, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

                According to the "intervening causes doctrine," there can be no proximate cause, as is required for liability in a negligence case, where there has intervened between the act of the defendant and the injury to the plaintiff an independent act or omission of someone other than the defendant, that was not foreseeable by the defendant, was not triggered by the defendant's act, and was sufficient of itself to cause the injury. As a general rule, suicide is deemed an unforeseeable intervening cause of death that absolves the tortfeasor of negligence liability in an action for wrongful death.

                When a mother brought an action against a city and its police officer for wrongful death arising out of her teenage daughter's suicide death, after the officer's disclosure of photographs of the daughter's body following her previous suicide attempt, the claim failed because of the intervening cause doctrine.  City of Richmond Hill v. Maia, No. S16G1337, 2017 WL 2332660 (Ga. May 30, 2017).

                The plaintiff's daughter, Sydney Sanders, first attempted suicide by cutting herself in the neck, chest, and abdomen. After she was taken to the hospital for medical treatment, city police officers responded to the hospital to investigate, at which time the daughter's injuries were photographed by the officers. Sanders wore only underclothes in the photographs. Later that month, the defendant officer accessed those photographs on his work computer and showed them to his daughter, who was a classmate of Sanders. The police officer's daughter then used her cell phone to show the images to other classmates. Sanders was distraught and mortified to discover that the photographs had been shared. Not long after that, she lamented to her mother, Laura Maia, how she felt humiliated and belittled and she wondered, in light of the dissemination of the injury photos, what further information the officers would disclose. In a conversation with her softball coach, Sanders went on a "rampage," venting her frustration about the "photos going around the school," about school gossip, about disappointing her mother, and about other struggles with both her boyfriend and her sister. Although Maia tried to keep Sanders supervised, when she was left at home alone one evening, she took her own life.

                In the ensuing wrongful death action, Maia unsuccessfully tried to bring her case within either of two exceptions to the general rule that suicide will foreclose a wrongful death claim because it is an unforeseeable intervening cause of the death. Pursuant to the "rage-or-frenzy" exception, where the tortfeasor's wrongful act causes the injured party to kill himself during a rage or frenzy, or in response to an uncontrollable impulse, the wrongful act is considered to be the proximate cause of the suicide. This is so because in such circumstances, the resulting act of suicide is not a voluntary one, but is involuntary, and is not an act that breaks the causal connection between the homicide and the act that caused the injury.

                This exception is not met simply by evidence of depression or anger, or by evidence that a decedent was dazed, stunned, shocked, or extremely irrational and violent. Rather, it requires a showing that the suicide was a product of insanity, delirium, an uncontrollable impulse, or was accomplished without conscious volition to produce death. See Elliott v. Stone Baking Co., 49 Ga. App. 515, 176 S.E. 112 (1934) (petition alleging that plaintiff's husband received head injury by defendant's negligence in hitting him with automobile, causing him to become insane, and that he killed himself as result of such insanity, stated cause of action for husband's death). In Maia, neither Sanders's continued distress regarding the police officer's disclosure of the photos of her body following her previous suicide attempt nor her subsequent ranting to her softball coach about various stressors in her life was sufficient evidence that she killed herself during a rage or frenzy, or in response to an uncontrollable impulse. 

                Although there is also a special relationship exception to the general rule that suicide breaks the causal connection between an alleged negligent act and the resulting death, the court in Maia found that the special relationship exception also was inapplicable to the facts in the case before it. At the time of the alleged negligent conduct and the subsequent suicide, the officer had no ability to supervise Sanders, to make health care decisions for her, or to exercise custody or control over her. It was not enough that the police officer owed only a generalized duty to protect both the general public and Sanders. Rather, Maia needed to show something she could not show—that the police officer owed and breached a specific duty to Sanders to protect her from harm, including self-inflicted harm.

    Topics: personal injury, intervening cause doctrine, suicide, special relationship exception

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