In Haynes v. Wayne County, No. M2016-01252-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 19, 2017), the Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment, holding that the county was not liable in a wrongful death action where an inmate committed suicide shortly after his release.
The decedent was 20-years-old and had been arrested for underage consumption, public intoxication, and resisting arrest. On the night of his arrest, he was intoxicated to the point of barely being able to walk and throwing up on himself. He asked two arresting officers if their guns were real and asked the officers to shoot him. This behavior was reported to the booking officer, who asked decedent several standard medical questions. Decedent told the booking officer that “he was suffering from depression and had attempted to commit suicide several times in the past.” Decedent was put in a suicide prevention suit and in an isolated cell on suicide watch, where he slept without incident. There was a non-profit organization called Centerstone that would come evaluate suicidal inmates, but they would not come while an inmate was intoxicated. At 6:00 a.m. there was a shift change and a new officer came on duty. The officer was informed of the statements decedent had made the night before. That morning, decedent was told he was eligible for release, and the officer asked decedent if he remembered making the suicidal threats the night before, to which decedent “replied in a joking manner that he remembered making the statement but was just drunk and did not mean it.” The release process took about an hour, and decedent “seemed fine during that time.”
Decedent called his cousin, who along with his grandmother came to pick him up from where he was walking on the side of a road. The grandmother testified that decedent seemed to still be intoxicated, but the cousin testified that he seemed okay. The grandmother took decedent to her home “and left him there alone while she took the cousin back to his mother’s house.” Shortly thereafter, decedent shot himself.
The grandmother brought this wrongful death action against the county, asserting that decedent’s “death was the result of Defendant’s negligence in releasing him from custody in an intoxicated state without having him evaluated by a mental health professional and without notifying his family of the suicidal threats that he made while incarcerated.” The trial court granted summary judgment for defendant, finding that defendant had “negated the breach of duty and proximate causation elements of Plaintiff’s negligence claim,” and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
On appeal, defendant first challenged plaintiff’s standing to bring this wrongful death action. Wrongful death is a statutory cause of action, and the statute “prescribe[s] the priority of those who may assert the action on behalf of the decedent and his or her other beneficiaries.” Per Tenn. Code Ann. § 20-5-107(a), a wrongful death action may be brought first by the personal representative or surviving spouse, then by the children or next of kin. “The statutes governing intestate succession govern priorities among next of kin. Thus, the superior right to bring a wrongful death action falls first to a surviving spouse, then to any children, then to a parent, then to a sibling, then to a grandparent.” (internal citations omitted). Adult beneficiaries, however, may waive their right to bring the suit “by permitting an inferior beneficiary’s action to stand without objection.” (internal citation omitted).
Defendant argued that plaintiff grandmother lacked standing here because there were three other people who might have standing—decedent’s unknown biological father, decedent’s mother’s ex-husband who may have adopted decedent, and decedent’s half-brother. The Court ruled, though, that the grandmother’s action was proper “[i]n the absence of any indication that [decedent] has other beneficiaries who hold a superior right to bring this action and object to her doing so[.]” Notably, the Court pointed out that contrary to defendant’s argument, an inferior beneficiary is not required to “affirmatively demonstrate that all individuals who may hold a superior right to file the action have waived it.”
Having found that plaintiff had standing, the Court next moved on to analyze whether the defendant owed a duty and whether such duty was breached. “Generally, individuals do not have an affirmative duty to act to protect others from dangers or risks except for those that they themselves created.” (internal citation omitted). There are exceptions to the no duty to act rule, however, such as when a special relationship exists. “One class of special relationship that creates an affirmative duty to act is that in which an individual or entity voluntarily takes custody of another under circumstances that deprive the other of his or her normal opportunities for protection.” (internal citation omitted). Under this exception to the no duty to act rule, courts in Tennessee have found that prisons “have an affirmative duty to prevent the occurrence of foreseeable harm to individuals in their custody,” and that “the suicide death of an inmate may give rise to a compensable claim for negligence.” (internal citations omitted).
In this case, it was undisputed that decedent was no longer in custody at the time of his suicide, and defendant argued that any special relationship it had with him that imposed a duty to protect him ended at the time of his release. The Court rejected this argument, finding that such a rule “would allow prison officials to avoid liability for the foreseeable death of a suicidal inmate simply by releasing the inmate” and “might also encourage inmates to feign suicidal ideations in effort to obtain an early release.” Instead, the Court ruled that “[w]hile special relationships do not extend indefinitely, a breach of duty during the special relationship may give rise to a compensable claim for negligence even though the resulting injury or loss actually occurs after the special relationship has ended.” The Court held that in this case, defendant had “assumed a duty to protect [decedent] from foreseeable harm when it took him into its custody, regardless of whether he was still in its custody when the harm occurred.”
Once the Court ruled that a duty existed, it then set out to define the scope of the duty. All parties agreed that the suicidal threats triggered a heightened duty of care on defendant’s part, but there was disagreement about when that heightened duty ceased to exist. Even viewing the facts in the light most favorable to plaintiff, the Court ruled that the heightened duty ended when decedent disavowed his suicidal threats before his release. The Court reasoned:
[T]he relevant inquiry is not whether [decedent] was actually still intoxicated when he spoke with Officer Sanders. Rather, it is whether Defendant had any objective reason to foresee that [decedent] might commit suicide following his release from custody. In our view, it did not. … [W]e see no reason, regardless of [decedent’s] actual mental state, why Defendant should have given more credence to the statements [decedent] made when he was intoxicated to the point that he could not walk without assistance than it did to those he made when…he seemed fine.
Accordingly, the Court ruled that at the time of his release, defendant had only a duty to exercise reasonable and ordinary care in protecting decedent rather than a duty of heightened care.
Breach of Duty
The Court next analyzed whether plaintiff proved that defendant breached its duty of ordinary care. “If the allegedly negligent conduct of the prison staff is not clearly improper, expert proof outlining the precise scope of the staff’s duty and evaluating the adequacy of the staff’s conduct is essential, and plaintiff cannot recover without it.” (internal citation omitted). In the present matter, the Court ruled that decedent’s release was not “clearly improper,” so the expert requirement would apply.
Plaintiff had an expert submit a report in this case, but the expert’s report based its findings on some incorrect facts. The expert did not reference the repudiation of the suicidal statements, said that decedent was underage when he was not, and said that decedent was intoxicated at his release. Further, the expert stated that the jail “failed to exercise reasonable care by not calling Centerstone” when the suicidal statements were made, but it was undisputed that Centerstone would not come while an inmate was intoxicated. The Court found that “the facts underlying the opinions set forth in [the expert report were] inconsistent with the record.” Further, the Court pointed out that defendant was required to exercise reasonable care at the time of decedent’s release, but that plaintiff had only argued in her brief that defendant breached the heightened duty of care. Accordingly, the Court ruled that plaintiff had failed to present sufficient evidence of a breach of duty and that summary judgment was appropriate.
Although the finding of no breach of duty was enough to sustain summary judgment, the Court of Appeals also addressed the element of causation in its opinion, finding that plaintiff likewise failed to present sufficient proof of causation in this case. The Court stated:
The evidence in the record conclusively establishes that Defendant’s conduct was not a substantial factor in bringing about [decedent’s] death. Plaintiff has not alleged or presented any evidence that Defendant intensified [decedent’s] depression or desire to commit suicide. Likewise, Plaintiff has not alleged or presented evidence that Defendant weakened [decedent’s] desire to live or prevented him from seeking aid on his own after his release. … The record also conclusively establishes that [decedent’s] suicide was not reasonably foreseeable at the time of his release. … Officer Sanders testified that [decedent] seemed fine and was even joking and laughing prior to his release. Additionally, Plaintiff and [decedent’s] cousin saw [decedent] between his release and the time he committed suicide. Clearly, neither of them suspected that he was suicidal at the time. … Generally, the act of suicide is, as a matter of law, an intervening act that breaks the chain of causation and relieves a negligent actor of liability if the decedent knew and understood the nature of his or her act or the act resulted from a moderately intelligent power of choice. …[W]e find no basis in the record for holding Defendant liable for [decedent’] deliberate, calculated, and voluntary act.
(internal citations omitted). Accordingly, summary judgment was affirmed.
In Tennessee, establishing liability for a suicide is a difficult task. Here, plaintiff was facing an uphill battle—not only had decedent repudiated his suicidal threats, but plaintiff herself had seen plaintiff since his release from defendant’s custody and left him alone in her home. There simply was not enough evidence to causally link the unfortunate death in this case to the actions of defendant.