The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has affirmed the dismissal of a case against Wal-Mart for selling bullets to a person without requiring her to present an identification card as required by Illinois law. Candice Johnson later used the bullets to commit suicide. Her husband filed suit, alleging that his wife did not have an identification card in her possession and Wal-Mart's violation of the Illinois statute requiring proof of identification was the proximate cause of her death. He also alleged that she should not have been sold a gun because she had been a mental patient within the previous five years and thus should not have been sold a weapon. The opinion does not say whether Wal-Mart knew of her prior status as a mental patient.
Wal-mart argued that the act of suicide was a superceding cause and thus it was not responsible for the death. It also argued that the violation of Illinois law was not the cause of Ms. Johnson's death.
The appellate court accepted Wal-Mart's arguments, saying that under Illinois law suicide is ordinarily an unforeseeable event and thus causation was not present as a matter of law.
Unfortunately, the opinion does not us any information about why the decedent did not have personal identification or whether Wal-Mart knew that she was a recent mental patient. I had one of these cases about 20 years ago, but in my case K-Mart had actual knowledge that my client was a former mental patient and it sold her the gun she used to kill herself anyway. Tennessee has a different view of the relationship between suicide and causation than Illinois. See White v. Lawrence, 975 W.W. 2d 525 (Tenn. 1998). Here is an excerpt from White:
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.
The record in this case shows that reasonable minds could conclude that the decedent's act of suicide was a foreseeable consequence of the defendant's negligence in surreptitiously prescribing and administering the Antabuse. The record shows that leading risk factors for suicide include physical illness and depression. The decedent suffered from both. The plaintiff presented medical proof that the decedent's suicide was reasonably foreseeable from a medical standpoint, and that the defendant's conduct was a substantial factor in bringing about the suicide. Both Dr. Pate and Dr. Smith testified that the defendant should have reasonably foreseen that secretly prescribing Antabuse to an alcoholic and depressed patient would cause severe physical problems and could cause the decedent to choose to end his life. The jury could thus find that the suicide was the foreseeable result of the defendant's negligence.
(Note: White was not on the books when our case was tried. We had a difficult fight on Rule 12, 56 and 50 motions. We received a plaintiff's verdict, but it for a modest amount.)
The case is Johnson v. Wal-Mart, No. 08-1126 (7th Cir. Dec. 1, 2009).