The Court of Appeals of Tennessee issued an opinion on June 23, 2017 in favor of a plaintiff, reversing a lower court’s decision in a wrongful death case. The plaintiff in the case alleged that the county emergency communications district and the city police department refused to send help when the plaintiff called to report that her daughter was making suicidal threats and that, as a result, her daughter committed suicide later the same night. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on the ground that the decedent’s suicide constituted an intervening, superseding cause, and the plaintiff appealed.
To prove a claim for negligence in Tennessee, a plaintiff must demonstrate: (1) a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; (2) conduct falling below the applicable standard of care that amounted to a breach of that duty; (3) injury or loss; (4) cause in fact; and (5) proximate cause. Proximate cause requires proof that the defendant’s conduct was a substantial factor in bringing about the harm and that the harm was reasonably foreseeable. The defendants in the case argued that they should be relieved of liability under the doctrine of independent intervening cause since the decedent’s suicide could not have reasonably been foreseen.
The appeals court explained that foreseeability is key in determining whether the doctrine applies since no one is expected to protect against harms from events that cannot be reasonably anticipated or foreseen. The court noted evidence that the plaintiff had alerted the defendants that her daughter was threatening suicide and that both the emergency communications district and the city police department refused to send help. Under these circumstances, the court found that a jury could reasonably conclude that it was foreseeable that the plaintiff’s daughter would follow through with her threats to commit suicide. Accordingly, the court held that the defendants were not entitled to summary judgment on the basis that the decedent’s suicide was a superseding intervening cause.
The second issue for the court was whether the plaintiff’s claims were barred by the public duty doctrine. This doctrine shields government employees from being sued for injuries caused by a breach of duty owed to the public at large. However, there is an exception when a special duty exists. In Tennessee, a special duty of care exists when (1) officials, by their actions, affirmatively undertake to protect the plaintiff, and the plaintiff relies upon the undertaking; (2) a statute specifically provides for a cause of action against an official or municipality for injuries resulting to a particular class of individuals, of which the plaintiff is a member, from a failure to enforce certain laws; or (3) the plaintiff alleges a cause of action involving intent, malice, or reckless misconduct. The plaintiff in the case contended that the defendants were reckless in failing to respond to the decedent’s suicide threats. The appeals court agreed, ruling that the evidence was sufficient to permit a jury finding that the defendants consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk of such a nature that its disregard constituted a gross deviation from the standard of ordinary care. In reversing summary judgment, the court allowed the plaintiff to proceed with her claims against the defendants.
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