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Court Finds That A Wrongful Death Action May Arise From Suicide And Denies Motion For Summary Judgment On The Grounds That The Jury Is Best Suited To Weigh Expert Testimony In Deciding Whether Defendant’s Negligence Proximately Caused The Suicide
Young v. Swiney
In Young v. Swiney, the United States District Court for the District of Maryland faced the issue of whether suicide may be the basis for a wrongful death action in the context of the impact of expert testimony on deciding a motion for summary judgment. The court held that Maryland law conforms to the majority position that one may not recover damages in negligence for another’s suicide, in that the suicide serves as an intervening act that precludes a finding of proximate cause. The court further held that this general rule does allow for an exception for suicide committed during insanity or delirium, if that mental state was caused by the defendant’s negligent conduct. In addition, the court admitted Plaintiff’s expert’s testimony, despite Defendant’s challenges to its reliability, explaining that Defendant’s challenges went to the expert’s credibility and not admissibility, which is for a jury to weigh. Judge Hollander authored the opinion of the court.
By way of procedural background, Decedent’s widow brought suit individually, as Personal Representative for the estate of Mr. Young, and as parent of minors Chelsea and Jenna Young against Swiney; Swiney’s employer, Industrial Transport Services, LLC (“Defendant”); and Warehouse Services (“Warehouse”). Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed Swiney and Warehouse from the case in exchange for Industrial Transport conceding fault of its employee; Defendant also did not dispute the events of the accident or the nature and extent of the resulting injuries. The complaint contained a survival action and four counts of wrongful death. Defendant unsuccessfully filed a motion for summary judgment (“Motion”) to, inter alia, dismiss all wrongful death claims.
On June 16, 2010 in Cecil County, Maryland, Decedent Joseph Young was stopped in his pick-up truck when an eighteen-wheel tractor trailer, driven by Donn Swiney, struck him from behind. The tractor trailer was traveling at a high speed when it hit the rear of Decedent’s truck, creating a chain-reaction collision, and forcing the pick-up truck into the vehicle in front of his. The tractor trailer continued to strike Decedent’s vehicle on the driver’s side, pushing the vehicle to the right until it stopped, partially resting on the tractor trailer’s saddle tank. Decedent complained to the rescue crew of neck pain, left forearm pain, and a laceration to the back of his head, before slipping into unconsciousness. The rescue team removed the roof of the pick-up truck to extract Decedent safely. At the time of the accident, Decedent was a forty-three-year-old carpenter and millwright, married to Plaintiff for eleven years with whom he fathered of two teenage girls.
Decedent was unable to return to work due to his injuries, and was terminated in December 2010. Decedent underwent surgeries on his elbow and spine in 2011. On March 5, 2012, still unable to work due to his injuries, Decedent lost his health insurance, which impacted his ability to obtain the prescribed physical therapy to rehabilitate his cervical spine. On May 10, 2012, Decedent met with Dr. Janet Anderson, Ph.D. (later referred to as “Plaintiff’s expert”), a psychologist and certified rehabilitation counselor with prior experience counseling individuals for insanity, delirium, depression, uncontrollable impulses, and suicide. In her experience, many post-injured patients eventually did commit suicide, typically several years after the accident. At that meeting, Dr. Anderson interviewed Decedent, who spoke of the “knife-like, dagger-like ripping feeling” in his dominant hand, his incomplete cervical fusion, bulging disks in his lumbar area that may require more surgery, feeling suicidally depressed, not being able to control his angry behavior, and that his whole family had been destroyed because he would never be able to return to work. After administering various psychological tests, Dr. Anderson concluded that Decedent was totally and completely disabled and would never be able to work any job again, while also very strongly recommending psychotherapy for “very suicidal depression, which [was] suicidal at times.”
Decedent’s family members reported the effects of Decedent’s post-accident injuries, stating that he had experienced “a complete personality change”; unable to control his anger, Decedent frequently fought with his wife about money and yelled at his daughters until his wife and daughters moved to Florida some time before his May 2012 evaluation. In August 2012, a neurosurgeon recommended surgery for the neck and upper back pain. Also that month, a vocational assessment revealed that, not only was Decedent unable to return to his occupation, but also that “his significant physical limitations, pain, depression and lack of high school diploma make him a poor prospect for successful return to work.” Decedent’s family was visiting in September 2012. On September 6, Decedent had a heated fight with his daughter. Police were called to the house, and before the family left to stay with a neighbor, Plaintiff requested that police stay with or take Decedent because she was worried about what he might do while upset. That night, Decedent committed suicide by ingesting alcohol, Flexeril (a muscle relaxant), and Tramadol (a pain medication). The medications taken were prescribed, but, according to Defendant’s expert, the alcohol likely exacerbated the depressive effects of the medicines; Decedent twice referred to himself in his suicide note as a “loser.”
As is well-settled, a judge makes preliminary determinations concerning the admissibility of evidence and qualifications of experts per Federal Rule of Evidence 104(a). In this gatekeeper role, a judge ensures that the jury will hear reliable, probative evidence, rather than unsupported assumptions, using the Daubert factors as a guide for evaluating proffered expert testimony. See Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 593-94 (1993). These factors “focus on the expert’s principles and methodology, and not on the conclusions that they generate.” McDowell v. Brown, 392 F.3d 1283, 1298 (11th Cir. 2004). Importantly, though, this gatekeeper role should not supplant the role of the jury or the adversary system, as cross-examination, contrary evidence, and careful instruction are the appropriate means for combating shaky evidence. Daubert, 509 U.S. at 596.
In its Motion, Defendant request dismissal of the wrongful death claims because, as a matter of law, the motor vehicle accident of June 2010 was not the proximate cause of Decedent’s suicide in September 2012. In Maryland, a successful wrongful death action requires a plaintiff beneficiary to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant’s conduct was negligent and such negligence proximately caused the death of the decedent. Parties agree that proof of causation standards for suicides as a basis for a wrongful death action are found in the case of first impression, Sindler v. Litman, 166 Md. App. 90 (2005), in which the victim of a car accident committed suicide allegedly due to her injuries. In that case, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals examined both existing approaches to when a wrongful death claim may arise from suicide. The minority approach declares suicide a common law crime and maintains that it is a per se bar to a wrongful death action; this approach was not favored because it was based on Virginia sustaining suicide as a common law crime, a stance abandoned long ago in Maryland. The Sindler court adopted the majority approach that suicide of one may not be grounds for damages based on the negligence of another, subject to this exception: the negligent actor is liable for the suicide when the negligent conduct causes the decedent’s insanity, delirium, or uncontrollable impulse to commit suicide. Restatement (Second) of Torts § 455. The court referred to the comments to § 455, stating that this exception neither applies to mere recurring acts of extreme melancholy, nor to a negligent incident simply starting in motion a chain of events that culminated in suicide. Whether a decedent was insane or delirious at the time of suicide—the suicide being the result of uncontrollable impulse or lack of realization—and whether the mental condition was caused by the defendant’s negligent conduct are questions for a jury that require expert testimony. Summary judgment on this issue is only appropriate when there is no evidence supporting a finding of liability for the suicide. In this case, evidence supporting such a finding was proffered by Plaintiff’s expert, a psychologist and certified rehabilitation counselor.
Plaintiff’s expert first submitted her opinion that Decedent, then alive, was incapable of returning to work and that the accident caused his incapacity. Following the suicide, Plaintiff’s attorney asked whether Decedent was suffering from a psychotic break from reality at the time of his suicide. The expert concluded that Decedent’s suicide was “directly and proximately caused by the psychosis he sustained as a result of the automobile accident.” Along with an affidavit, the expert submitted a timeline that detailed the stressful events between the accident and suicide, including the September 6 family argument as just one event of the many contributors to, rather than the direct causes of the suicide.
Defendants challenged the opinions offered by Plaintiff’s expert, deeming the opinions to be unreliable. Defendants alleged that her opinions were without foundation, were not the product of any reliable methodology, and were not based on sufficient facts or data. The court rejected Defendant’s classification as “mere conjecture,” reiterating the laundry list of sources that the expert used to arrive at her opinions, including the autopsy, depositions, and police reports on record; her personal meetings with Decedent and his family; and her training, knowledge, and experience in similar matters. —Moreover, Defendant produced no expert testimony to refute the opinions of Plaintiff’s expert. Although Defendant’s expert arrived at a different conclusion, Defendant’s expert stated in his deposition that the methodologies employed by Plaintiff’s expert were accepted in their field and that he had no criticisms about how Plaintiff’s expert interviewed or tested Decedent in May 2012.
Defendant further claimed that Plaintiff’s expert’s opinions were inconsistent, in that in May 2012 she found him to be merely suffering from depression, but then post-suicide deemed him the victim of a psychotic break. Dr. Anderson countered, explaining that she did not find him to be psychotic at the time of the May 2012 testing; however, it is perfectly normal for someone to later have a psychotic episode after overwhelming pressure, as was the case with Decedent. In addition, Defendants posited that the fact that Decedent left a detailed suicide note could only mean that his act was deliberate and realized, solely caused by depression. The court responded that no authority supports that conclusion, while a bounty of case law suggests otherwise. Further, the court noted that several other courts hold that impulses need not be sudden in order to be characterized as irresistible or uncontrollable.
After declining to accept any of Defendant’s allegations in support of its Motion, the court denied the Motion because Plaintiff produced sufficient evidence to create a jury question. The court echoed the Daubert and Sindler courts, stating that Maryland law clearly mandates this issue be tried before a jury with expert testimony. The court found that each of Defendant’s arguments went to the credibility of the expert testimony, not admissibility, explaining that “[d]efendant has pointed to a host of issues that it could raise in the course of ‘vigorous cross-examination of [Plaintiff’s expert] and through the testimony of its own expert witnesses.”
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