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Tennessee Court Holds Suicide Not an Intervening Cause in Wrongful Death Case

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In negligence cases, defendants can only be held liable for damages that result from actions that they have directly caused. For example, if a plaintiff is involved in an accident during a thunderstorm, she may be able to sue the other driver for injuries that she sustained during the car accident. However, if she is also struck by lightning from the thunderstorm, she cannot seek damages for any damages related to those injuries, since they were caused by an independent intervening event, the lightning strike. While the intervening cause is clearly separate and distinct from a driver’s negligence in that example, separating the two is not always so easy. In a recent case before the Tennessee Court of Appeals, the court considered whether the suicide of a young woman was an independent cause of the daughter’s and her family’s injuries, or a foreseeable result of a police department’s failure to take action.

In this case, B.R. brought a lawsuit against the City of Newport, Tennessee and the Cocke County Emergency Communications District (CCECD) after he daughter committed suicide in 2013. According to B.R., on the evening of the suicide, B.R. called CCECD on several occasions to request assistance in dealing with her daughter, who was acting erratically and threatening to commit suicide. Despite requesting assistance from officers to help restrain her daughter and bring her to a safe place, B.R. was repeatedly denied on the ground that the City of Newport police department did not get involved in domestic disputes. After being rejected several times, B.R. attempted to drive to the police department and request assistance, but the police office was closed. When B.R. returned home, her daughter had killed herself. B.R. then sued the City and CCECD for wrongful death and negligence.

The defendants argued that they were not responsible for the death or any damages resulting from it because B.R.’s daughter’s suicide was an independent intervening cause, and the police department, which had not interacted with her daughter, did not owe any duty to prevent B.R.’s daughter from taking her own life. They moved for summary judgment on this basis, and the trial court agreed, finding that the suicide was an intervening act that negated any previous negligence by the defendants. B.R. appealed.

On appeal, B.R. argued that, under Tennessee law, an independent intervening event protects a defendant from negligence claims only if (1) the intervening act was sufficient to cause the injury, (2) the intervening act was not foreseeable, and (3) the intervening act was not a normal response to the negligent defendant’s conduct. Here, B.R. argued that her daughter’s suicide was clearly foreseeable to the City and CCECD because she repeatedly told them that she needed help to prevent her daughter from committing suicide. She pointed to several cases relying primarily on the foreseeability analysis when considering other claims of intervening causes and events. After reviewing the case law, the Court of Appeals agreed. It held that the “touchstone” of evaluating intervening causes was foreseeability and whether the intervening event was foreseeable. Here, taking the evidence in the light most favorable to B.R., B.R. had alerted 9-1-1 dispatchers and officers to the fact that her daughter was threatening suicide and could not be controlled, and both parties refused to send her any assistance. Therefore, it was foreseeable that the City and CCECD knew that it was likely that B.R.’s daughter might commit suicide when they did not assist, and the defendants were not entitled to summary judgment. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded.

Independent intervening acts can sometimes allow negligent actors to avoid liability when there are many possible causes for a victim’s injuries or trauma. However, when negligent defendants are aware that these independent acts could occur, and they don’t do anything to prevent them or address the larger problem, the Court of Appeals has confirmed that they cannot escape liability through their own inaction. If you have been involved in a complicated accident involving multiple events or multiple parties and are concerned about the possibility of intervening acts being raised, experienced Tennessee wrongful death attorney Eric Beasley can help you evaluate whether such intervening acts were foreseeable. For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Supreme Court Reviews Wrongful Death Benefits Awarded to Severely Injured Carpenter’s Family, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, May 31, 2017.

Tennessee Courts Consider When a Party Can Be Held Liable for an Agent’s Negligence, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 12, 2016.

Sixth Circuit Denies Negligence Claim For Lack of Physical Injury, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, September 21, 2016.