Who Is Legally Responsible for a Suicide?

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Many of you know that as President of the State Bar of Georgia I began a statewide effort to reduce suicides among attorneys, which was occurring at an alarming rate. I created the State Bar’s “How To Save a Life” program and we set about educating our members about the warning signs of suicide, what to say and what not to say to a colleague or friend who you suspect may be contemplating suicide and the steps to take to help prevent suicide.  In the process, I learned a lot myself and suicide prevention has become a movement I hold dear, although I had certainly never even given it a second thought before I was faced with it in our membership as President of the State Bar. As a result of this learning process for me, I read just about everything I can on suicide.

Which brings me to the subject of this post: who is legally responsible for the suicide of someone else?  The recent Georgia Court of Appeals opinion in Mayor and City Council of The City of Richmond Hill v. Maia, No. A15A2334 (Ga. Ct. App. March 20, 2016), which may very well be one of the saddest cases I have ever read, answers that question in the context of city police officer and suicide victim and held the victim’s suicide was a reasonably forseeable consequence of the police officer’s negligent conduct where the police officer had a specific duty not to disclose the suicide victim’s confidential information.  The appellate court held that issue was one for the jury to decide and the case was remanded to the trial court for a trial. It is my understanding, however, that the City of Richmond has appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court and the case is on the Supreme Court’s July docket. 

The facts of City of Richmond Hill are heartbreaking and very difficult to read and even imagine.  A young high school teenager attempted suicide by cutting her neck and stabbing herself.  Her mother placed her in a mental health hospital after the attempt.  The child stayed there for 9 days and then returned to her school.  As such things are with teenagers, the child’s suicide attempt became the talk of the school. According to her boyfriend’s testimony in the case “everybody knew after a couple of days what happened.” The City of Richmond Hill police department investigated the suicide attempt and as part of their official police investigation took photographs of the child’s injuries from the suicide attempt.  In what appears to be a horrific irony, one of the investigating police officers had a child who attended the same high school as the victim. The police officer became concerned  that his child did not appreciate the seriousness of the suicide attempt and so, in clear violation of the police department’s written policy entitled “Duty to Refrain from Disclosing any Information Relating to Police Activities,” showed the photographs of the victim to his daughter by accessing them through the police department’s computers. The police officer swore that he did not give them to his daughter or print them, but within days his daughter was showing these photographs of the victim on her cell phone to other students in the high school.

The mother of the suicide victim noticed her daughter seemed to grow more depressed.  She had the girl’s coach and mentor talk to her and the victim told her coach she “didn’t want to be here anymore,” and  she wished her suicide attempt had been successful. She told her coach how the police had belittled her and had shown the photographs of her and said “What more can they do to me?”

That evening she told her mother over the phone she loved her, posted on her Facebook wall that she loved her best friends, wrote notes in odd places in her room and then went up to the attic of her family’s house and hanged herself.

The mother sued the City of Richmond Hill for the negligence of the city’s police officer in violating official policy and sharing the photographs of the victim’s first suicide attempt, foreseeably leading to the victim’s subsequently successful suicide attempt.

The Court of Appeals looked to its precedent in suicide cases, which dates back to 1967, Appling v. Jones, 115 Ga. App. 301 (1967). In Appling the Court had held “where injuries resulting from the negligence of a third person produce a state of mind in the injured person which leads to her suicide, the person guilty of the negligence is not civilly responsible for the suicide.”  Fortunately, the Court in City of Richmond Hill found these circumstances different in that there was a special duty owed by the police officer to the suicide victim not to show her photographs to anyone.  His doing so was a violation of the Police Department’s own policy. The Court found the scenario more akin to a special relationship between a medical provider and his patient.  The Court noted the police officer “had reason to know that [the victim] was peculiarly vulnerable because he had investigated her suicide attempt.”  The Court found the act of suicide was not an intervening act that would preclude the a finding that the police officer’s negligence proximately caused the child to commit suicide.

I believe the holding in City of Richmond Hill is the correct one and is more in tune with the realities of suicide as we know them to be now in 2016.  The medicine behind what causes suicide has grown and developed enormously in the 49 years since the opinion in Appling that essentially said suicide must be done in a “rage or frenzy, or in response to an uncontrollable impulse” for a third party’s wrongful conduct to be considered the proximate cause of the death.  That language comes directly from the 1967
Appling opinion and shows a complete misunderstanding of the science and medicine of suicide. It also reveals a complete absence of understanding and evolution of mental health since 1967.  One of the dissents in City of Richmond Hill actually goes further and cites a suicide case from 1913!  The City of Richmond Hill opinion doesn’t seem to rely on expert testimony about why people commit suicide and the triggers we now know can cause someone to commit suicide.  It seems reasonable for an opinion addressing third party liability for suicide as a result of allegedly negligent conduct that arguably caused a person to commit suicide to have researched and referred to the current state of mental health medicine and science to reach a sound result.  Fortunately, the Court reached that sound result nonetheless.

I’ll be watching this case as it is argued before the Georgia Supreme Court and will keep you posted.

In the meantime, I’ll keep fighting the good fight!

Robin Frazer Clark pursues justice for those who have personal injury claims as a result of being injured in motor vehicle wrecks, trucking wrecks, defective products, defective maintenance of roads, premises safety, medical malpractice and other incidents caused by the negligence of others.  Ms. Clark is the 50th President of the State Bar of Georgia and a Past President of Georgia Trial Lawyers Association and has practiced law in Georgia for 28 years.  Mrs. Clark is listed as one of the Top 50 Women Trial Lawyers in Georgia and is a Georgia Super Lawyer.  Robin Frazer Clark~Dedicated to the Constitution’s Promise of Justice for All.