Tennessee Court Rules Gun Owner May Be Liable to Estate for Decedent’s Suicide

In order to succeed in a Tennessee wrongful death action, the plaintiff must prove the elements of duty, breach, causation, and injury. In some cases, the court will decide whether it’s possible for the plaintiff to establish those elements as a matter of law. In a September 15, 2017 case, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee considered whether the estate of a woman who committed suicide could bring a negligence wrongful death action against a defendant based on the defendant’s alleged acts of displaying and failing to properly store and prevent accessibility to his gun, with which the decedent ultimately committed suicide.

The defendant and the decedent met at a hospital, where the defendant was employed as a psychiatrist and the decedent worked as a nurse.  They began dating, which led to the decedent’s divorce from her husband.  The decedent subsequently moved into the defendant’s residence.  The decedent told the defendant that she started treatment for depression and was on medication.  After the decedent suffered an overdose, she was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital for a suicide attempt.  The decedent confided to the defendant that she had been contemplating suicide, and the defendant observed the decedent’s crying spells a couple times a week.  The defendant broke off his relationship with the decedent, and she moved out, although they continued seeing each other.  The defendant purchased a gun, which he kept in an unlocked china cabinet, and showed it to the decedent.  The defendant allowed the decedent to stay in his house while he was out of town.  When he returned, he found the decedent dead on his bed with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The concept of duty is an essential element in all negligence claims.  In Tennessee, the duty owed to the plaintiff by the defendant in all cases is that of reasonable care under all of the circumstances.  When the existence of a particular duty is not a given, courts will impose a duty of care if a defendant’s conduct poses an unreasonable and foreseeable risk of harm to another person.  A duty arises when the foreseeability of the risk and the gravity of the harm outweigh the burden imposed on the defendant to engage in alternative conduct.

On appeal, the court concluded that, based on the decedent’s history of depression and previous suicide attempt, coupled with the loss of custodial rights concerning her son and the termination of her relationship with the defendant, it was reasonably foreseeable that she might harm herself by using the gun that the defendant had shown her and failed to secure.  The court further found that the foreseeability of this risk and the seriousness of the harm outweighed any burden on the defendant to alter his conduct.  In so doing, the court established that the defendant owed the decedent a duty of care.  The court went on to hold that the element of causation was a disputed issue for the jury. The wrongful death case was therefore remanded to the trial court, where the estate could proceed with its claims against the defendant.

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