It's tragic, but thousands of people in the US commit suicide each year. Is anyone legally liable or responsible when someone commits suicide?
Sometimes no one is. After all, it's an individual's choice to take her own life. However, there may be times when someone other than the victim may be liable for a suicide, such as a parent, school official, or medical professional.
In 2002, a seven-year hanged himself at home. A few months later, his mother became the first parent ever known to be criminally charged for a child's suicide. She was convicted of the crime "risk of injury to a minor for an unhealthy home." The conviction was later thrown out, however.
Similar cases are scarce, but there's a growing trend where courts and government officials are stepping in to make sure parents give their children proper medical treatment and care. So, it's probably not a big leap for a parent to be held legally liable for a child's suicide, especially if the parent knows, or should know, the child is or may be suicidal and does nothing to help the child.
In the 2003 case, the child's school claimed it advised the mother to get psychiatric therapy months before the incident. She didn't try to get that help until the very day her soon his life, though.
As a general rule, a parents' legal liability for a child usually ends when the child reaches the legal age of majority, usually 18, or becomes emancipated. Of course, if the child is over 18 and is still a dependent - such as a child with a physical or mental handicap - a parent may still be legally liable.
School officials, such as teachers, staff, and especially school counselors, may be legally liable for a student's suicide. As a general rule, they're responsible for your child's safety while she's at school. In the 2003 case, the mother claimed the school was liable for her son's suicide because it did nothing, or not enough, to stop her son from being severely bullied.
Schools have been held liable for student suicides when, for example, school counselors or other staff knew, or had good reason to know, a student was suicidal and did nothing to prevent or stop the student's behavior. Informing the parents of the student's behavior or reporting their belief to school or school district psychiatric professionals are easy preventative measures that should be taken.
Doctors, psychiatrists and other health care professionals, and trained counselors - even school counselors - may be liable for someone's suicide. As a practical matter, their liability, if any, depends on the same legal principals as a malpractice case. It requires a showing that:
- The professional owed a duty to the victim to protect him from harm. A doctor-patient relationship can establish the duty
- The professional "breached" or broke that duty
- The breach of duty and victim's injury are connected
- The victim in fact suffered an injury
Lawsuits involving suicide and malpractice are filed by someone who survives the person who committed suicide, such as a parent or spouse, or sometimes the suicide victim's estate, especially if he was an adult. Also, these suits are typically called wrongful death lawsuits.
A medical or mental health care professional may face liability for a suicide in cases involving:
- Misdiagnosing or failing to properly identify the risk of suicide
- Failing or refusing to take appropriate measures to prevent suicide, up to and including involuntary commitment to a mental health facility
- Prescribing medications, or an improper dosage of medications, that tend to increase the risk of suicide
- In the case of minors or other dependent children, failing to inform parents or guardians of suicide risks identified by the professional
Losing a loved one is always traumatic, perhaps even more so when it's a suicide. Of course, filing a lawsuit against someone can't bring a loved one back. However, if someone is responsible for the death, a lawsuit may help to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Questions for Your Attorney
- How does someone go about getting a spouse or child involuntarily committed to a health care facility?
- I don't think my child's school is doing enough to stop other students from bullying my child. Is there anything I can do?
- Do I have to file a complaint with any state agency before I file a malpractice lawsuit against a doctor or mental health professional?