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As a Matter of Law, Suicide Generally Relieves a Defendant of Liability for Their Negligent Acts

August 11, 2017

          A divided Georgia Supreme Court recently reversed the Court of Appeals, holding that Georgia law generally deems suicide as an unforeseeable intervening cause.  City of Richmond Hill v. Maia, 800 S.E.2d 573 (2017).  Following the death of her daughter, Laura Maia brought a wrongful death action against the mayor and city council of Richmond Hill and police officer Douglas Sahlberg.  Maia’s daughter, Sydney Sanders, attempted suicide when she was 14 years old.  Sahlberg, the responding officer, was sent to the hospital to investigate the injuries and take photographs. When he returned home he showed the photographs to his daughter, who attended school with Sanders, and disseminated the photographs throughout the school.

 

            Sanders confided in Maia that she was humiliated by the disclosure of the photographs and that she was concerned that the officers would disclose additional information.  Additionally, she told her softball coach about her frustration about the release of the photographs, resulting school gossip, and the strain on her close relationships.  Despite those conversations, Sanders was left home alone and took her own life.  In her suit, Maia alleges that Sahlberg had a duty to keep the photographs confidential, that he breached that duty by showing them to his daughter, and that he should have known that the publication of the photographs would create a reasonable apprehension that Sanders would harm herself.  Therefore, Sanders death was the proximate cause of Sahlberg’s negligent acts. 

 

            Defendants moved for summary judgment arguing that Maia could not prove the causation element.  Under Georgia law, suicide is typically treated as an independent act that breaks the chain of causation from prior negligent acts.  There are two exceptions to this rule, when the suicide is a result of rage-or-frenzy, or when a special relationship exists; however, Defendants argued that these exceptions should be construed narrowly and did not apply under the circumstances. 

 

Both the trial court and the Court of Appeals found that the question of proximate cause turns on the foreseeability of harm.  Further, the Court of Appeals held that Sanders’ suicide was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of Sahlberg’s negligent acts.  However, the Supreme Court determined that Georgia law is clear, and held that Sanders suicide was an intervening act that extinguished any causal connection between Sahlberg’s negligence and Sanders death.  Therefore, Plaintiff could not demonstrate proximate cause and her claims failed as a matter of law.  As a result, Defendants were entitled to summary judgment in their favor.

 

The attorneys at Buckley Christopher, P.C. are available to assist you and your company in ensuring that your employment practices are within the bounds of the law and to represent you if litigation arises.  Please contact one of our attorneys for more information.

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