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Georgia City Faces Wrongful Death Trial Over Teenager’s Suicide

In Georgia, the family of a deceased person may file a wrongful death lawsuit if there is evidence that someone else’s negligent or criminal acts were the cause of death. A common example would be a person killed in a drunk driving accident. In such circumstances, the family of the victim might pursue a wrongful death claim against the drunk driver.

Mayor and City of Richmond Hill v. Maia

What about a case in which a negligent act leads the victim to commit suicide? Can the family still bring a wrongful death claim? The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed this question.

The victim in this case was a 14-year-old high school student. In February 2011, the victim made her first suicide attempt by cutting herself in the neck, chest, and abdomen. Local police investigated the suicide attempt. In the course of the investigation, one of the police officers took photographs of the victim’s injuries.

Approximately two weeks later, another police officer assigned to the case was discussing the suicide attempt with his own daughter, one of the victim’s classmates. According to court records, the officer “became concerned that his daughter did not appreciate the serious nature of suicide.” Accordingly, he logged into his work computer and retrieved the photographs taken of the victim’s injuries. The officer said he showed the pictures to his daughter but did not make a physical copy of them.

However, other students attending the same school later testified that the officer’s daughter did, in fact, show them the pictures of the victim’s injuries. According to the victim’s mother, when her daughter learned that the pictures were being circulated, she was “mortified” and “screaming and yelling and gasping for breath and crying.” A few weeks later, the victim was found dead, having successfully committed suicide by hanging.

The mother subsequently sued the city and the officer who share the photos with his daughter. A trial court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. On appeal, the Court of Appeals did dismiss some parts of the mother’s complaint but allowed her wrongful death claim to proceed.

The appeals court was not unanimous on this issue. Presiding Judge John J. Ellington wrote the Court’s principal opinion. He said summary judgment was not warranted because a jury could determine the officer “breached his duty to [the victim] by revealing her confidential information to his daughter in violation of [police department] policy.” A jury could further “infer” this breach was a “cause in fact” of the victim’s eventual suicide given there was evidence that she “remained severely distraught by the conduct of the [police] in releasing her confidential information” on the day that she hung herself.

Presiding Judge Ann Elizabeth Barnes, writing separately in support of the judgment, argued the victim’s emotional state on the day of her suicide was not relevant. Instead, Judge Barnes argued that a “reasonable jury could find that the defendant police officer had reason to know that [the victim] was particularly susceptible to suicide, and that her subsequent suicide was a foreseeable result of his sharing confidential information.”

Judge Stephen Louis A. Dillard, dissenting from the majority’s view, said the trial court should have granted summary judgment to the city and the police officer. Judge Dillard maintained that “under well-established Georgia law, [the victim’s] tragic suicide was an unforeseen intervening cause of her death,” meaning the defendants could not be held liable.