"ERIC ZAUN & NEGLIGENT FAILURE TO PREVENT SUICIDE"
Suicide is a difficult topic for individuals to talk about. The emotional strife the family and friends experience as a result of a friend or loved one taking their own life is surely unimaginable. Often, the tragedy of these events is magnified when their occurrence seems to have come from out of the blue, with the decedent having shown no noticeable signs of depression or suicidal thought immediately preceding their passing.
Surely, we all recall the emotional outpouring across the nation and across the world from fans of Robin Williams following his unexpected suicide after having been diagnosed with the early stages of Lew Body Dementia. The event served as a startling reminder that even those who often put on a happy face may secretly be among those suffering the most.
Whenever a loved on passes, the family left behind may, understandable, be experiencing a wide range of emotions. Often, when that passing it at the hands of another – be it, intentionally, as in the case of a murder, for example, or unintentionally, as in the case of a fatal car accident, for instance – feelings of sadness may quickly be replaced with feelings of anger and the desire to hold the other person accountable. But what of suicide, where the one who took the life of your loved one is, in fact, your loved one? Where does suicide leave those left behind in terms of pursuing legal action?
The answer in some small subset of suicide cases may be a negligence action premised on a defendant’s negligent failure to prevent the individual’s suicide. There is a factual and legal distinction to be made here. A negligence action premised on a defendant’s negligent failure to prevent suicide is different from a wrongful death action or a criminal action premised upon an individual’s suicide precipitated by a defendant’s conduct.
You will likely recall the 2017 Massachusetts case of Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy III. In 2014 Mr. Roy – 18 years-old at the time – took his own life after having receiving dozens of texts from Ms. Carter, his girlfriend, encouraging him to end his life, and chastising him for hesitating to do so. After Mr. Roy killed himself via gas asphyxiation in his car in 2014, Roy’s family pursued criminal charges against Ms. Carter for her hand in Roy’s death, i.e., her encouraging Roy to end his life. Finally, in 2017, Ms. Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the event, and sentenced to 15 months in jail. After appealing her conviction that same year, Massacsett’s highest court upheld her conviction, and she began serving her sentence in February of this year.
It is important to note that the criminal action which followed Mr. Roy’s death is a different matter entirely than a civil action premised on the negligent failure to prevent suicide. In the Roy matter, Roy ended his life, directly – at least in part – because of the defendant’s affirmative actions/conduct, i.e., the text messages. Conversely, in a negligence action based upon a defendant’s negligent failure to prevent suicide, it is not the affirmative conduct of the defendant that led the individual to kill themselves – such as having encouraged them to do so, or perhaps having angered them or distressed them to such a point that they do so – but rather, it is the omissions of the defendant – their negligent failure to have intervened – which failed to prevent the individual’s suicide.
While many states have allowed negligence claims for failure to prevent suicide, traditionally these types of claims are limited to psychiatric professionals – the theory being that because psychiatric professionals are in the best position to gauge their patients’ mental status, they are also in the best position to intervene if a patient is contemplating suicide. Courts have held that liability in these types of cases is therefore premised on the existence of a special relationship between the individual and the defendant, the specialized expertise and experience of the professional, and the foreseeability of the self-harm. Bogust v. Iverson, 102 N.W.2d 228, 230 (Wis. Sup. Ct. 1960). In simple terms, the defendant’s duty of care to prevent a suicide is imposed because of his special knowledge of the decedent’s suicidal thoughts or tendencies.
There have been cases, however, where this duty of care to prevent suicide has been extended to other types of relationships, including, for example, a prison with respect to its inmates. In the seminal U.S. Supreme Court case from 1976 on the matter, Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, the Court held that a custodial agency, such as a prison, may not act with “deliberate indifference” to an inmate’s serious risk of self-harm or suicide. While the Court did not define “deliberate indifference,” a plethora of subsequent case law has further expounded upon the term such that the standard has been equated to the civil law definition of reckless knowledge. Partridge v. Two Unknown Police Officers, 791 F.2d 1182 (1986).
Similarly, the special relationship that would give rise to a defendant’s duty to prevent the suicide of the other party to the relationship has also been extended to hotel with respect to one of its guests. In the 1975 case of Sneider v. Hyatt Corp., 390 F. Supp. 976, the Northern District of Georgia held a hotel liable after the suicide of one of its guest. Mrs. Violet Sneider was an intoxicated guest at a hotel owned by the defendant, who committed suicide by jumping from the 21st floor of the hotel. The guest's spouse and child sought damages from the hotel because they claimed that it had a duty to foresee and prevent her suicide when she had checked in while inebriated and without luggage and was seen wandering about on the 21st floor in a confused state, especially after telephone inquiries were made concerning her whereabouts. They also claimed that an affirmative duty to act existed because the hotel was on notice that the upper floors had become an attractive location for suicides.
Based on the telephone calls concerning the guest's suicidal tendencies, the reasonable apprehension of danger to the guest these calls created, and the hotel’s failure to exercise ordinary care by intervening, the court found the hotel liable for preventing Ms. Sneider’s suicide.
This case is particularly relevant given recent events here in New Jersey. Last month, tragedy struck the professional volleyball community when pro player Eric Zaun, a 25 year-old resident of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, jumped to his death from the 29th floor of the Borgata Hotel & Casino, on June 11, 2019. Zaun, who had been named the Association of Volleyball Professionals’ Rookie of the Year in 2017, was not known to be suicidal according to news reports. In fact, in his last Instagram post from a week before his death, Zaun wrote, “June is gonna be a good month.”
The Sneider case invariably comes to mind given Eric Zaun’s passing, however, at present, there are no reports of Zaun’s family pursuing legal action in connection with his death.
If you or a loved one are contemplating suicide, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1(800)273-8255.
If, unfortunately, you have loved one who has commit suicide, and you believe their death could have been prevented but-for the failure of a professional to intervene, please give the law office of Drinkwater & Goldstein, LLP a call today. Our compassionate attorneys and staff will work with you through this difficult experience and attempt to give you and your loved one the closure and financial recompense you deserve. Call now: (856) 753-5131