§47.28 Liability for Suicide
The Case: White v. Lawrence , 975 S.W.2d 525 (Tenn. 1998).
The Basic Facts: Plaintiff, administratrix of a patient's estate, filed suit against the doctor for medical malpractice. Plaintiff alleges that the doctor covertly gave the drug commonly known as "Antabuse"-a drug which creates an "unpleasant" reaction to alcohol, typically used to discourage the consumption of alcohol- to the deceased's wife, who then administered the drug to the deceased, unbeknownst to him (the deceased). The patient later committed suicide.
The Bottom Line:
- "The issues to be decided are whether the decedent's suicide was a superseding, intervening cause, thereby precluding recovery against the defendant as a matter of law, and whether the decedent's suicide may be considered in determining the fault of the defendant under McIntyre v. Balentine, 833 S.W.2d 52 (Tenn. 1992). The conclusions are that the decedent's act of suicide was not a superseding, intervening cause of death as a matter of law, but a question of fact to be resolved at trial, and the decedent's intentional act of committing suicide may not be considered in assessing fault against the defendant." 975 S.W.2d at 527.
- "As the expert testimony in this case demonstrates, the foreseeability or likelihood of a suicide does not necessarily depend upon the mental capacity of the deceased at the time the suicide was committed. The fact that the deceased was not insane or bereft of reason does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the suicide, which is the purported intervening cause, is unforeseeable. As our cases dealing with proximate or legal causation have indicated, the crucial inquiry is whether the defendant's negligent conduct led to or made it reasonably foreseeable that the deceased would commit suicide. If so, the suicide is not an independent intervening cause breaking the chain of legal causation. Those decisions holding to the contrary are overruled." Id. at 530.
- "The second issue to be considered is whether the decedent's intentional act of committing suicide may be considered in determining the fault of the defendant." Id.
- "The same principles that were found to preclude comparison of fault in Turner apply with equal force to the instant case. The defendant's liability may not be reduced by comparing his negligent conduct with the decedent's intentional act of committing suicide since the intentional act was a foreseeable risk created by the defendant's negligence.FN3
FN3 Judge Drowota's dissent would hold that where the intentional wrongdoing of a patient is the foreseeable risk created by the negligent physician, comparison of fault is appropriate if the patient is a party to the suit. The rationale for the Turner decision, that 'fairness dictates that [a negligent defendant] should not be permitted to rely upon the foreseeable harm it had a duty to prevent so as to reduce its liability' is sound, and the holding of Turner is applicable whether the patient is or is not a party."Id . at 532.
Other Sources of Note: Potter v. Ford Motor Co., 213 S.W.3d 264 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2006) (holding that intervening cause doctrine was inapplicable in suit against automobile manufacturer who attempted to assert as an intervening cause the negligent conduct of the plaintiff driver).
Recent Cases: Drake v. Williams, No. M2007-00979-COA-R3-CV, 2008 WL 1850872 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 25, 2008) (reversing trial court's order granting summary judgment for defendants based on theory that decedent's suicide was an intervening, superseding cause finding genuine issue of material fact as to whether decedent's suicide was a foreseeable result of defendant's alleged negligence).