Monday, March 31, 2014

Decision by Judge Minora Expands the Law of Negligent Liability for a Suicide

In his recent March 19, 2014 Opinion (31 pages) in the case of Hudak-Bisset v. County of Lackawanna et al., No. 2007-CV-2401 (C.P. Lacka. Co. March 19, 2014 Minora, J.), Lackawanna County Judge Carmen D. Minora addressed the unfortunate issue of whether a Plaintiff's Motion to Amend a Complaint should be granted to allow for the inclusion of Wrongful Death/Survival Act claims where the death of the Plaintiff resulted from a suicide that was allegedly brought on by the decedent's pain from a motor vehicle accident.

Judge Carmen D. Minora
Lackawanna County
Judge Minora more specifically describe the matter as involving the "vexing and complicated question of whether a Plaintiff ought to be allowed to recover damages for a suicide allegedly secondary to accident related injuries and chronic pain caused by the Tortfeasor/Defendant."  Op. at p. 3. 

The court noted that the resolution of this issue was found to be particularly vexing in light of the fact that it has been addressed on previous occasions in the context of a wide variety of factual scenarios subjected to different standards of review in the case law such as the legal standards applicable to preliminary objections, motions for summary judgment, and motions to amend to name a few.

After reviewing the procedural  law of Pa.R.C.P. 1033 which allows for the liberal construction of requests to amend pleadings and analyzing the substantive law with a  a "Palsgraf-like" assessment of the extent and duration of the duty and proximate cause which the alleged tortfeasor defendant owed the plaintiff, Judge Minora ultimately digressed from a line of cases to hold that the amendment should be allowed.

Judge Minora differed with a line of cases dating back to 1989 that have generally ruled that a  wrongful death action can not be based upon a suicide event as a suicide was viewed as an independent intervening act that is considered so extraordinary as to be deemed essentially unforeseeable to the tortfeasor.  That line of cases therefore held as a matter of law that the tortfeasor's negligence could not be the proximate cause of a later suicide since such injuries were not foreseeable.  See McPeake v. William T. Cannon, Esq., P.C., 553 A.2d 439 (Pa.Super. 1989).

With his ruling in this Hudak-Bisset case, Judge Minora can not be said to be yet another judge who "rigidly follow[s]" the McPeake line of cases.  Rather, Judge Minora relied in part on retired Lackawanna County Judge S. John Cottone's decision in the case of Mackin v. Arthur J. McHale Heating & Air Conditioning Co., Inc., 76 D.&C.4th 544 (C.P. Lacka. Co. 2005) to rule differently.  Judge Cottone ruled in Mackin, noted to possibly one of the only decisions on record that did not follow the McPeake rule of law, that the above-referenced line of cases on this issue of non-liability for a suicide on the grounds that the injuries were totally unforeseeable was too "restrictive" and that, in some factual contexts, a jury should be allowed to assess whether or not a plaintiff has met their burden of proving the element of proximate causation.

Judge Minora distinguished the McPeake decisions on its facts, on public policy grounds, by the legal standard of review applied (preliminary objections in McPeake versus a liberal motion to amend a Complaint standard in this Hudak-Bisset case), and by the fact that the defendant in this Hudak-Bisset case before him was a common carrier bus company who, by law, is held to the highest degree of care in negligence actions.  Judge Minora was also influenced in this matter on the proximate causation question by the fact that the decedent left a suicide note indicating that the decedent had ended his life in part due to the inability to continue on with the chronic ongoing pain caused by the subject accident with the defendant.

Judge Minora also pointed to other lines of cases on other important issues that have been allowed to be expanded as part of the living law such as, for example, the slow but steady expansion of the ambit of liability in negligent infliction of emotional distress claims from the "impact" rule, to the "zone of danger" rule, to the "bystander" rule and, most recently the further expansion of that doctrine in the context of medical malpractice cases.

Judge Minora reasoned that, in a similar fashion in this Hudak-Bisset case, the Plaintiff was seeking to amend the Complaint to assert wrongful death and survival claims in the context of a suicide case despite McPeake and its progeny.  The Plaintiffs were proceeding on the grounds that the evolution of the law may allow for a finding that claims of this type and in this context may prove to be valid in the end.  Concisely, the Plaintiffs were fighting for the basic right to "test the limits of the existing law and [to] be allowed to plead [the claim] as a developing area of the law." Hudak-Bisset at p. 15.

Judge Minora also applied on the five part test enunciated by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the case of Althaus v. Cohen, 756 A.2d 1166 (Pa. 2000), to determine whether any duty exists ((1) the relationship between the parties, (2) the social utility of the actor's conduct, (3) the nature of the risk imposed and the foreseeability of the harm incurred, (4) the consequences of imposing a duty upon the actor, and (5) the overall public interest in the proposed solution."

The court ruled that the Althaus test supported the finding of a duty under the facts presented and in particular, the facts intended to be pled of an alleged suicide note allegedly tying the suicide to the Defendants' alleged negligence.  The court in Hudak-Bisset also pointed out the evolution of jury instructions and verdict slips from the use of the term "substantial factor" to "factual cause" would also support a finding of possible liability in this context, i.e. was the negligence of the tortfeasor a factual cause of the decedent's suicide under this set of facts?"

Accordingly, after revisiting the liberal standard of review applicable to motions to amend pleadings under Pa.R.C.P. 1033, Judge Minora ultimately ruled that, under the facts plead, the Plaintiff's right to try to push for an expansion of the law should be honored. 

As such, the motion to amend the Complaint was granted.

Anyone wishing to read Judge Minora's Opinion in Hudak-Bisset may click HERE.

To review a Tort Talk post on other cases addressing liability under Pennsylvania law relative to a suicide, click on this LINK.

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