Negligent Weapon Storage and Failure to Prevent Suicide

Where a defendant knew of decedent’s past suicide attempt, knew she was suffering from depression, and knew he had just ended his relationship with her, the trial court was wrong to grant summary judgment on a negligence case related to him showing her an unsecured gun in his home to which she had access.

In In re Estate of Cotten, No. M2016-02402-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 15, 2017), the personal representative of decedent’s estate brought suit against defendant for negligence based on “the defendant’s alleged acts of displaying and failing to properly store and prevent accessibility to the firearm with which decedent ultimately committed suicide.” Decedent was married and had a son when she met and began an affair with defendant. Decedent was a nurse at Skyline Hospital, and defendant was a psychiatrist there. Decedent divorced her husband in 2012, but she retained equal co-parenting time of her son. Two years after beginning the relationship, decedent moved in with defendant, at which time defendant admitted “observ[ing] that Decedent suffered crying spells and appeared to struggle with the loss of her job and eviction from her previous residence.” Decedent began seeing another psychiatrist at the hospital and was given medication for depression. Defendant was aware of decedent’s treatment.

In January 2014, the child’s father filed for full custody of the son, and three days later decedent was taken to the ER because she had “consumed an overdose of Ativan while drinking wine.” Decedent was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital, and was eventually released to defendant. There was a disagreement about whether the hospital firmly recommended follow up with a psychiatrist within seven days, but defendant admitted that “he had spoken with a physician at [the hospital], who informed [him] that Decedent was depressed and had attempted suicide.”

In April 2014, the father obtained “majority custody” of the son, and in June 2014 defendant “observed that Decedent was suffering crying spells one or two times per week and seemed to be struggling with the loss of custody of her son.” Decedent called her psychiatrist in June 2014, and he noted that she was “doing poorly and appeared more depressed.” In August 2014, defendant broke up with decedent and she moved out, but the two continued seeing each other. In October 2014, defendant acquired a handgun and ammunition, and he placed each in two separate socks in unlocked drawers of his china cabinet.

On October 26, 2014, while decedent and her son were at defendant’s house, defendant admitted to showing them the gun. That same day, defendant told decedent that “he was interested in pursuing a relationship with another woman,” and decedent became very upset. Following this incident, the father informed decedent that “he was considering seeking supervised visitation” due his fears about the situation.

On November 1, 2014, defendant agreed to allow decedent to stay in his home while he was out of town. That following Sunday, on November 9th, decedent shot herself with defendant’s handgun in his home and died.

The estate filed suit against defendant, alleging that he “owed a duty to Decedent to properly store and maintain in a safe manner his firearms.” The estate further stated that defendant knew of decedent’s “fragile mental state and suicidal tendencies,” and that the decedent’s suicide was foreseeable. The trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the suicide was not foreseeable and was an independent, intervening cause, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

The Court first looked at whether the suicide was foreseeable as it related to creating a duty of care. “A duty arises when the degree of foreseeability of the risk and the gravity of the harm outweigh the burden that would be imposed if the defendant were required to engage in an alternative course of conduct that would have prevented the harm.” (internal citation and quotation omitted). In Tennessee, “the issue of whether a legal duty is owed is largely dependent upon whether the risk was foreseeable and significant.” (internal citation omitted).

Here, the Court noted that “several significant and stressful events” happened between decedent’s first suicide attempt in January 2014 and her death in November 2014. The Court pointed out that defendant chose to show decedent his gun on the same day he told her he wanted to pursue a different relationship, and that decedent “used [defendant’s] weapon to end her life approximately fourteen days after she first saw and handled the firearm.” The Court reasoned:

Based on Decedent’s history of depression and previous suicide attempt, coupled with the loss of custodial rights concerning her son and the termination of her relationship with [defendant], it was reasonably foreseeable that Decedent might inflict harm upon herself by utilizing the deadly weapon of which [defendant] made her aware. [Defendant’s] act of showing the firearm to Decedent and then returning it to an unsecured location within the home created an unreasonable risk of harm to Decedent. We further conclude that the degree of foreseeability of the risk and the gravity of the harm outweighed the burden that would be imposed if [defendant] had engaged in an alternative course of conduct that would have prevented the harm.

Thus, the Court reversed summary judgment on the duty issue.

Next, the Court looked at the estate’s argument that there was a special relationship here based on decedent’s status as “a guest in [defendant’s] home and his paramour.” The trial court had rejected the argument that a duty arose based on a special relationship, and the Court of Appeals agreed. The Court pointed out that it was “unable to locate any Tennessee precedent determining that a heightened duty of protection exists based on a dating relationship.” The Court stated that “the trial court was not required to find a special relationship…in order to determine that a legal duty existed regarding misfeasance,” but to the extent the estate tried to assert liability for nonfeasance, such a claim would fail.

Last, the Court analyzed the theory of independent, intervening cause. A plaintiff alleging negligence must prove proximate cause. “An intervening act can break the chain of causation when the act could not have been reasonably anticipated,” and “[s]uicide has been determined, in many cases, to be such an independent, intervening cause.” While some Tennessee cases have enumerated specific exceptions to when a suicide should be considered an intervening cause, the Court here stated that “applicability of the independent, intervening cause doctrine hinges on foreseeability, rather than whether the situation fits a particular exception.” Looking at the facts of the instant matter, the Court found:

In this action, with regard to causation, we determine that reasonable minds could draw more than one conclusion regarding causation. …Prior cases establish that liability could exist when a defendant knew or should have known that the decedent presented a reasonably foreseeable risk of suicide, as demonstrated by evidence indicating that the decedent’s demeanor or actions should have raised concerns about her mental stability and that the defendant’s actions increased such risk. …We therefore determine that because a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding causation, summary judgment was improperly granted on the basis of lack of causation.

Accordingly, summary judgment was vacated and the case was remanded.

The Court of Appeals did a good job of analyzing a sad case here. With suicide cases, the tendency can be to jump to independent, intervening cause and let any potential defendant off the hook. Here, though, a long-time live-in boyfriend of the decedent (who happened to be a psychiatrist) showed her an unsecured gun when he knew that she had attempted suicide within the previous year and was dealing with several stressful life situations.   One wonders what the ruling would have been if the boyfriend had not been a psychiatrist.