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Tennessee Supreme Court Finds Psychiatrist Not Liable for Ex-Wife’s Suicide


Like any personal injury case, a wrongful death claim requires the plaintiff to establish the defendant’s negligence. Under Tennessee law, negligence requires proof the defendant had a “duty of care” to the plaintiff or victim that was then somehow breached. In a wrongful death case, it is also critical to establish this breach was the “proximate cause” of the victim’s injury–i.e., there was not some superseding or intervening cause that led to their demise.

Court: Defendant Was Not “On Notice” of Possible Suicide Attempt Despite Victim’s Mental Health History

One such superseding cause may be suicide. That is to say, Tennessee courts have historically been reluctant to hold wrongful death plaintiffs liable for a victim’s suicide, on the grounds the suicide itself was a “superseding cause.” This suicide rule is not absolute, however, and the courts do recognize limited exceptions. One such exception applies when there is a “special relationship” between the defendant and the victim–such as that of a doctor and patient–and the suicide was a “reasonably foreseeable probability naturally resulting from the defendant’s” negligence.

The Tennessee Supreme Court recently clarified the scope of the suicide rule in a case, Cotten v. Wilson, involving the death of a woman in her ex-husband’s home. The victim had a long history of mental health problems, including a prior suicide attempt. The defendant, who is a psychiatrist, was aware of these problems.

In October 2014, the defendant showed the victim a gun he had recently purchased. A few weeks later, the defendant allowed the victim to stay at his house while he was out of town. She remained at the house even after his return. One day, in November 2014, the defendant returned home and found the victim dead, the result of a self-inflicted wound from the defendant’s gun.

The victim’s estate subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit, alleging the defendant was negligent in keeping a firearm in his home knowing the victim–a woman with a history of mental illness and suicide attempts–was living there.

The Supreme Court, reversing an earlier decision by the intermediate court of appeals, held under these facts, the defendant could not be held legally responsible for the victim’s death. The Court noted that in the nine months that passed between the victim’s first suicide attempt and her actual death, “[n]othing in the record” showed the victim “had a suicidal inclination.” More to the point, there was no sign the defendant “should have detected” the possibility his ex-wife would use his gun to commit suicide.

To sustain a wrongful death claim, the Court emphasized there must be evidence that the defendant was “on notice” the victim was suicidal, either at the time he showed her how and where to access his gun, or when he “allowed her to stay in his home without securing the gun.” The Court said there was no such evidence, so the defendant was entitled to summary judgment in his favor.

Speak with a Tennessee Wrongful Death Lawyer Today

When faced with the sudden loss of a loved one, you are understandably looking for answers. And when there is evidence connecting someone else’s negligence to the death, you want justice. An experienced Knoxville personal injury attorney can help. Contact the offices of Fox, Farley, Willis & Burnette, today if you need advice or assistance regarding a potential wrongful death claim.




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