In most civil cases involving liability for someone’s death, it’s usually pretty easy to link the defendant (the person who is alleged to be legally at fault) with the conduct that caused the death -- the driver runs a red light and hits a pedestrian, killing him; the surgeon makes a blatant error during a relatively routine procedure, and the patient dies. (Learn more about Common Kinds of Personal Injury Claims.)
But in civil cases where surviving family members are trying to hold someone else liable for the suicide of a loved one, this causal link (the legal term for this is “causation”) is much more tenuous and difficult to prove.
In this article, we'll look at some key legal issues in these kinds of cases, examine the uneven legal landscape of court decisions on civil liability for suicide, and explain why it’s important to have an attorney’s expertise on your side.
Civil Liability for Suicide: Key Questions to Ask
By definition, someone who has committed suicide has served as the direct cause of his or her own death. So, in a personal injury lawsuit against a defendant who allegedly caused someone else's suicide, the key question is going to be: Was the defendant’s action (or inaction) a substantial factor in the deceased person’s suicide? One facet of this question is "foreseeability." Or, more specifically, was it reasonably foreseeable that the deceased person would commit suicide as a result of the defendant’s action or inaction? In other words, was the suicide a normal result of what the defendant did or did not do?
Unwrapping this issue a little more, other factors to consider (and perhaps build a liability argument around) include:
- Did the defendant know or have reason to know that the deceased person was suicidal (he or she had attempted suicide in the past, had spoken of committing suicide or expressed ideation, etc.)?
- How much time passed between the defendant’s actions/inactions and the deceased person’s suicide?
- Did other factors exist (besides the part the defendant allegedly played) that could explain the deceased person’s actions?
There are no clear-cut rules when it comes to civil liability after a suicide, making the preparation of a strong, sound argument crucial to your case.
Court Decisions on Civil Liability for Suicide
Most court cases on civil liability for suicide have involved the potential fault of school districts, psychiatrists, and other health care professionals after someone (a student, a patient) has acted to take his or her own life.
For example, In 1991, a Maryland appeals court case considered a wrongful death case that was filed against a school district after the suicide of a 13-year-old middle school student. In a decision called Eisel v. Board of Education of Montgomery County, Maryland, the court held that “school counselors have a duty to use reasonable means to attempt to prevent a suicide when they are on notice of a child or adolescent student's suicidal intent.” In the Eisel case, that meant the school counselors had a duty to notify the parents after the child had made suicidal statements at school.
More recently, in 2015, the family of a 15 year-old Connecticut boy filed a lawsuit against their town and its school district, alleging that school officials knew that the boy was bullied relentlessly, but failed to take steps to protect him before he took his own life.
Those are two examples in the education setting, but there are other contexts that present a similar dynamic, and which raise similar legal issues. For example, what if a therapist’s adolescent patient is exhibiting signs of suicidal ideation, but the therapist does not notify the parents? A week later, the patient takes his own life. Is the therapist liable?
Without the existence of a special relationship (administrator-student, health care professional-patient), a lawsuit seeking to establish civil liability for suicide will likely face an even tougher road. Bottom line: This is a novel area of the law, with no clear-cut liability rules, making the preparation of a strong, sound argument crucial to your case. And that means having an experienced lawyer on your side.
Getting Legal Help
With so much gray area surrounding civil liability for suicide, your attorney will need to prepare and articulate a convincing legal argument, while also navigating the complexities of your state’s “wrongful death” statutes. These are laws that authorize the family members or estate representative of a deceased person to file a lawsuit for damages resulting from the death.
While the law is unsettled, one commonality in these cases is the need for testimony from a qualified expert witness -- usually a psychologist or other mental health expert -- who can offer a professional opinion on the deceased person’s “state of mind” and on what part, if any, the defendant played in causing the deceased person to take his or her own life. An experienced attorney will have a network of experienced experts to call on to help bolster your case.
Learn more about Working With a Personal Injury Lawyer.