Suicide: Risk Factors and Civil Liabilities
A few days ago, we were struck by the news of fashion designer Kate Spade’s passing. New York Police Department reported that she died as a result of suicide. NYPD sources also conveyed that a suicide note was found on the scene addressed to Spade’s daughter, which said something to the effect of “it’s not your fault.” The world is once again reminded about the somber reality of mental illness and suicide.
Over the years, we have seen successful celebrities and public figures are taken over by depression and take their own lives; and each time, it reiterates the gravity of the mental health problem we face as a society. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States; 44,965 Americans die by suicide each year.
It is important to note that there are certain people who are more likely to attempt suicide. One step towards addressing the problem is to familiarize ourselves with the risk factors. Here are some of them:
Mental disorders, especially mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder
Family history of suicide
Co-occurring mental disorder and alcohol/substance abuse
Previous suicide attempt
Impulsive and/or aggressive tendencies
Relational, social, work, or financial loss
Easy access to lethal methods, such as guns
Unwillingness to seek help due to stigma attached to mental health disorders
Influence of significant people who have committed suicide – family members, peers, celebrities – via personal contact or inappropriate representations by the media
By definition, a person who has committed suicide has served as the direct cause of his or her death. However, there are civil cases in which family members hold someone else accountable for the suicide of their loved one. In such cases, the key question to ask is whether the defendant’s action or inaction is a significant factor in the deceased person’s suicide; in other words, whether the suicide is a normal outcome of the defendant’s action or inaction.
For example, a parent wants to sue a psychiatrist for not taking the necessary actions that could have prevented his son’s suicide. In this case, the parent may file a wrongful death claim against the psychiatrist if they believe that their son’s death is a result of the healthcare provider’s negligence. In a similar case, the family of a boy in Connecticut sued their town and school district for their son’s suicide, alleging that they failed to protect him despite their knowledge that the boy has been persistently bullied in school.
On the other hand, a parent whose child used their own firearm to commit suicide might be wondering if they are legally liable for their child’s death. Any person in legal possession and control of a firearm is immune from liability from a third person’s unlawful or criminal misuse of the firearm as long as (1) the third person was not authorized to use the firearm, and (2) the firearm was securely stored or a safety device was rendered at the time that the third person accessed it. However, a parent may be held liable if they had knowledge or reason to know, from the child’s past misconduct, that it was necessary to control and supervise the child to keep him from hurting himself or others.
The civil liability that surrounds suicide has a lot of gray areas, so it is important to seek expert legal advice on the matter.
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