Special Duty Doctrine Applied Against 911 Agency in Suicide Case

In Ramsey v. Cocke County, Tennessee, No. E2016-02145-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 23, 2017), plaintiff sued the county, the police department, and the county emergency communications district for wrongful death after her daughter committed suicide. The trial court granted summary judgment to defendants, but the Court of Appeals reversed, holding that “the decedent’s suicide was foreseeable and that the special duty exception to the public duty doctrine applie[d].”

According to plaintiff, she called 911 around 8:30 p.m. one night because her daughter was exhibiting “unexplained serious mental and behavioral” issues and was indicating that she was going to commit suicide. Plaintiff asserted that she told the 911 operator that her daughter was threatening suicide and asked for police assistance, but that the operator refused to send police because “it was not their policy to respond to domestic family issues.” Plaintiff called again around 9:15 and was denied police assistance a second time, and plaintiff was transferred to an officer who allegedly affirmed that it was “not their policy to send responders in situations like this.” Because the operator had refused to dispatch an officer, plaintiff stated that she drove to the police department, but that the doors were locked and she could not find an officer. When plaintiff returned home, her daughter had committed suicide.

Plaintiff filed suit for wrongful death, and the defendants disputed plaintiff’s version of the facts. Defendants denied that plaintiff requested an officer or that she told them that her daughter was contemplating suicide. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis that they “did not owe plaintiff a duty of care pursuant to the public duty doctrine” and that the suicide was “an intervening and independent cause which supersedes any liability and is the proximate cause of the death of the decedent.” The trial court granted the summary judgment, finding that the suicide here was an intervening cause, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

First, the Court analyzed whether the defendants’ alleged negligence was the proximate cause of decedent’s death, or whether her suicide was an intervening cause. “The doctrine of independent intervening cause relieves a negligent actor from liability when a new, independent and unforeseen cause intervenes to produce a result that the negligent actor could not have reasonably foreseen.” (citing Rains v. Bend of the River, 124 S.W.3d 580 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2003) (internal quotation omitted)). When considering the doctrine of intervening cause, “[f]oreseeability is the key…because no person is expected to protect against harms from events that he or she cannot reasonably anticipate or foresee or which are so unlikely to occur that the risk, although recognizable, would commonly be disregarded.” (quoting Rains). Tennessee courts “have held that suicide may constitute an intervening cause if it is a willful, calculated, and deliberate act of one who has the power of choice,” but that “the act of suicide is not always viewed as an intervening act that relieves the negligent actor from liability.” (quoting White v. Lawrence, 975 S.W.2d 525 (Tenn. 1998)). The Tennessee Supreme Court has noted that in suicide cases, “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.” (quoting White).

One Tennessee Court of Appeals case addressing suicide as an intervening cause identified three exceptions to the general rule that suicide breaks the chain of causation: (1) when “the defendant’s negligence causes delirium or insanity that results in self-destructive acts,” (2) in “custodial settings in which the custodian knew or had reason to know that the inmate or patient might engage in self-destructive acts,” and (3) when a special relationship exists. (quoting and citing Rains). Defendants in the present matter argued that, “in order for a municipality to be held liable for a suicide, one of these three exceptions must apply.” Since the parties agreed that none of the three exceptions listed in Rains applied to decedent, defendants argued that summary judgment was warranted.

The Court, however, rejected defendants’ argument. Rather than focusing on the three exceptions, the Court ruled that “the touchstone is foreseeability, not whether a given case fits into a previously carved-out exception.” (citation and quotation omitted). Looking at the evidence in the light most favorable to plaintiff, the Court ruled that “a factfinder could reasonably conclude that it is foreseeable that [daughter] would follow through with her threats to commit suicide,” and that defendants were not entitled to summary judgment under the theory of intervening cause.

Next, the Court considered defendants’ argument that plaintiff’s claims were barred by the public duty doctrine. “The public duty doctrine shields a public employee from suits for injuries that are caused by the public employee’s breach of a duty owed to the public at large.” (citation omitted). Under certain circumstances, however, there is a special duty exception to the public duty doctrine, including where a “plaintiff alleges a cause of action involving intent, malice, or reckless misconduct.” (citation omitted). “[R]eckless conduct has been defined as occurring when a person is aware of, but consciously disregards, a substantial and unjustifiable risk of such a nature that its disregard constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise under all the circumstances.” (citation omitted).

Here, plaintiff testified that she told the 911 dispatcher that her daughter was threatening suicide and was twice denied police assistance by the dispatcher. Additionally, she stated that she spoke to a police officer on the phone who also refused to assist her. A 911 operator testified that an officer should always be provided when one is requested, and an expert stated in an affidavit that the 911 center and police’s failure “to immediately and appropriately respond amounts to reckless misconduct and gross negligence…” Based on these allegations, the Court ruled that plaintiff’s claims were not barred by the public duty doctrine, as her evidence was “sufficient to permit a finding…that the defendants consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk of such a nature that its disregard constituted a gross deviation form the standard of ordinary care.” (citation omitted). Summary judgment was accordingly reversed.

The Court reached the right result here. This case was full of fact issues, and plaintiff had clearly created a genuine issue of material facts so as to avoid summary judgment stage. Second, this decision illustrates the rarely applied special duty exception to the public duty doctrine.