Georgia Police Officer Absolved of Legal Liability in Teenager’s Suicide

Teenage suicide is a serious public health problem in Georgia. According to the Jason Foundation, a leading suicide prevention organization, “suicide is the second leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18.” Suicide kills more teenagers every year than cancer, heart disease, and birth defects combined.

City of Richmond Hill v. Maia

When a parent loses a child to suicide, he or she understandably wants to know why it happened. In some cases, the suicide may have been provoked by the reckless or negligent act of a third party. The Supreme Court of Georgia recently clarified the circumstances where such third parties may be liable in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the parents of a deceased child.

We previously wrote about this case last year. The victim was a 14-year-old girl. In February 2011, the victim made an unsuccessful suicide attempt. A police officer investigated the suicide, and in the course of his work he took photos of the victim while she was hospitalized. Later, the officer showed the pictures to his own daughter, who attended school with the victim. The officer claimed he wanted to impress upon his own child the serious nature of teen suicide.

However, the officer’s daughter then showed the pictures to other students at the school. One day, about seven weeks after the initial suicide attempt, the victim succeeded in killing herself. The victim’s mother said earlier that day, her daughter said she “felt humiliated and belittled” by the public disclosure of the photographs.

The mother sued the city, alleging the officer’s reckless disclosure of the photographs to his daughter caused the victim’s death. A trial judge rejected the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, a decision upheld by a divided Georgia Court of Appeals.

But the Supreme Court overruled the lower courts and ruled in favor of the city. The Court conceded that the officer’s actions were “undoubtedly wrongful” and likely contributed to the victim’s suicide. But as a matter of law, the justices said the suicide itself “acted as an intervening cause that extinguished any causal connection” between the officer’s actions and the victim’s death.

The Court went on to explain that there are two scenarios in which a third party could still be held liable for a victim’s suicide. The first is a “rage-or-frenzy exception,” where the alleged wrongful act “causes the injured party to kill himself during a rage or frenzy.” That did not apply to this case because, as the mother testified, her daughter was “calm and rational” in their final conversation before her death.

The second exception is if there is some sort of “special relationship” between the victim and the wrongdoer. For example, if a police officer’s negligence leads a prisoner in his custody to commit suicide, the special relationship exception could apply. But here, the Supreme Court said there was no such relationship between the police officer and the victim. She was never “in his custody or care.” While he may have been negligent in handling the photographs, he did not owe the victim any “specific duty” to protect her from harm.

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