Georgia Court of Appeals Splits on City’s Possible Liability for Minor’s Suicide

empty schoolyardDealing with the suicide of a loved one is always a tremendously difficult task. Unfortunately for some, this pain and grief can, in certain circumstances, be exacerbated by an indication that the acts of another party motivated the suicide. Although the conduct of others can clearly contribute to someone’s decision to end his or her life, the law often does not provide for liability in most circumstances. A recent decision from Georgia’s Court of Appeals, City of Richmond Hill v. Maia, demonstrates that courts are reluctant to impose liability when someone elects to commit suicide.

The tragic facts at the heart of this case occurred in 2011. On Valentine’s Day of that year, the then 14-year-old daughter of the plaintiff in this action attempted suicide. As part of an investigation into the matter, Richmond Hill, Georgia officers reported to the hospital and took photos of the minor. The minor remained hospitalized for a little more than a week, but news of her attempted suicide started to spread around her school. One of the minor’s schoolmates asked her father, one of the officers who reported to the hospital, about the suicide attempt. Concerned that his daughter did not understand the gravity of the situation, the officer logged into his work computer to show his daughter photos of the injuries sustained by the minor. At a deposition, the officer testified that he did not allow his daughter to copy the photos and that he did not otherwise disseminate the photos.  However, another schoolmate of the minor testified at a deposition that the officer’s daughter showed her and at least two other students pictures of the minor’s injuries a few days later. A different schoolmate averred that the officer’s daughter used her phone to show another student and her pictures of the injuries.

Following her return to school, the minor learned that students had seen photos of her injuries, and she was upset by the situation. Some time thereafter, the other officer who reported to the hospital learned that the officer had shown his daughter the photos and that his daughter had told others about the photos, acts that the other officer conceded violated department policy. Continued gossip about the minor’s suicide attempt, along with discord with her boyfriend and her sister, caused the minor considerable distress, which ultimately culminated in her choosing to hang herself. Following her daughter’s suicide, the plaintiff brought suit against the City of Richmond Hill, among other parties, asserting claims sounding in, inter alia, negligence, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and wrongful death. At the close of discovery, the defendants moved for summary judgment, which the trial court denied as to all claims. The defendants then filed an application for interlocutory appeal of the denial of summary judgment, which the Court of Appeals granted.

In a deeply divided opinion, the Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court only erred in part but substantially limited the issue to be presented at trial. As an initial matter, pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 36-33-5, the plaintiff needed to provide pre-suit notice to the city of her claims. Although the plaintiff did provide notice, the Court of Appeals noted that this notice only conveyed information regarding the plaintiff’s personal claims and did not indicate that the plaintiff intended to assert claims on behalf of the deceased minor’s estate. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals concluded that the claims advanced in the complaint on behalf of the daughter’s estate should be dismissed. See, e.g., Jones v. City Council of Augusta, 100 Ga. App. 268, 269 (6) (1959) (holding that notice of claim brought by parents for negligence and seeking reimbursement of medical expenses did not encompass claim on behalf of the child for personal injury).

In addition, the Court of Appeals determined that the notice of claim did not describe the plaintiff’s personal claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, and pre-death pain and suffering with sufficient particularity. Indeed, the notice never specified the pre-death injury that the plaintiff personally suffered as a result of the distribution of the photos and, accordingly, provided the city with insufficient notice of these claims to allow for pre-suit settlement. See Davis v. City of Forsyth, 275 Ga. App. 747, 748 (1) (2005) (explaining that the pre-suit notice statute requires one “to state the ‘extent of the injury,’” with sufficient particularity as to allow the party receiving notice to “determine whether any such claim should be settled without litigation”).

Although many of the plaintiff’s claims were now lost, the Court of Appeals did conclude that the wrongful death claim should survive summary judgment.  With respect to this claim, the key question on appeal was whether the actions of the officer could be shown to be the proximate cause of the minor’s death. Indeed, as the judges dissenting from this portion of the court’s ruling noted, suicide is generally considered “an unforeseeable intervening cause of death which absolves the tortfeasor of liability.” Tucker v. Pearce, 332 Ga. App. 187, 191 (2015); see also Appling v. Jones, 115 Ga. App. 301, 303 (1) (1967) (explaining that when “injuries resulting from the negligence of a third person produce a state of mind in the injured person which leads to . . . suicide, the person guilty of the negligence is not civilly responsible for the suicide”). However, the majority noted this general rule has been held not to apply when the suicide “is a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the defendant’s negligent conduct.” Brandvain v. Ridgeview Institute, 188 Ga. App. 106, 116 (3)(b) (1988). In such circumstances, “the . . . causal connection between that conduct and injury is not broken.” Id.

In the case, the majority reasoned that a reasonable jury could determine that the officer’s conduct “caused” the minor’s suicide, in light of the fact that a breach of the duty to not disclose sensitive information regarding a prior suicide attempt could foreseeably lead to another attempt and that the evidence showed that the dissemination of the photographs continued to cause severe distress to the minor up until the point of her suicide. Since a second suicide attempt was not, as a matter of law, an unforeseeable result of the breach of duty at issue here, the majority reasoned that it was proper for the trial court to deny the motion for summary judgment and let a jury ultimately determine whether the breach caused the suicide.

Although this plaintiff will still get an opportunity to prove her claim to a jury, the Court of Appeals decision shows the difficulties posed when one attempts to  establish negligence when an intervening act is involved. Indeed, although many believe negligence claims are straightforward, causation problems associated with intervening acts are not uncommon in them, and those who have a possible meritorious claims should consider finding experienced counsel prior to undertaking legal action. The Atlanta wrongful death attorneys at Christopher Simon Attorney at Law have represented many injured Georgians and are knowledgeable about the particulars of Georgia negligence law. If you’ve recently been injured as a result of the possible negligence of another party and are curious about your options for recovery, feel free to contact us to arrange a free case consultation.

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