Losing a loved one is always tragic, and knowing that their death was caused by self-harm is even more emotionally devastating. Suicides are the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, killing 42,000 Americans every year. Although there is no one cause of suicides, in some cases, a suicide may have been prevented with the timely intervention of others. If that timely intervention didn’t occur, the suicide may be considered a wrongful death, with certain individuals held liable.
Wrongful death cases involving suicide are much more complicated than traditional wrongful death suits. If you suspect that someone is liable for your loved one’s suicide, here are 4 things to consider:
1. There are Threshold Rules for Wrongful Death Suits
Every state has different rules for wrongful death suits. In Massachusetts, the criteria are that the person representing the deceased is the executor or administrator of their estate and that the defendant, by their negligence, caused the death in question. In the case of a suicide, which is legally defined as self-inflicted fatality, proving that another person is liable can be more difficult. Although the burden of proof in a civil case is much lower than that of a criminal case, you still must prove that the defendant(s) knew that their action or inaction could cause the victim to commit suicide and that they were aware of the victim’s emotional state.
2. Some Professionals Have an Obligation to Act
In some professions, especially in the medical or mental health fields, there are clear rules and procedures if the professionals suspect suicidal tendencies. Under Massachusetts state law, therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists are required to report any mention of suicidal thoughts or tendencies to authorities or to the parents if the patient is a minor. This rule applies even to the point of allowing doctors to violate doctor-patient confidentiality in order to protect the patient. If the doctor or medical professional fails to act and a preponderance of evidence shows they were aware of a clear and present danger, they could be held liable for their patient’s suicide.
There are time limits to when a therapist can be held liable for inaction. For example, a therapist from three years prior would most likely not be held responsible for a patient’s suicide.
3. Certain Institutions Could Be Held Liable
Certain institutions are legally responsible for the well-being of the individuals within them. Nowhere is this more apparent than with schools. More and more cases concerning student suicides caused by bullying are entering the court system. With the rise of social media, psychological torment can become inescapable for some children, who may respond with self-harm.
In these cases, parents have sued not only the alleged bullies, but also the school district for failing to intervene. Schools are obligated to protect their students, and a suicide could legally be found to have failed in that duty. As a result, more and more schools are taking steps to crack down on bullying. Many of the lawsuits against schools have not been resolved yet, so it is still unclear what the legal consensus on the matter will be.
4. If Drug Side Effects Caused a Suicide, Pharmaceutical Companies Could Be Liable.
Manufacturers must take precautions to ensure that their products are safe for consumers and print reasonable safety warnings on potentially hazardous products. In the case of drug manufacturers, they are legally required to state all known side-effects of their drugs and whether those side effects include suicidal thoughts. Failure to do so could cause them to be liable for their customers’ deaths.
Most recently, Pfizer’s anti-smoking drug Chantix came under heavy scrutiny for allegedly increasing suicidal thoughts in patients. Allegedly, the drug manufacturer knew the risk the drug posed and continued to push it on doctors without telling them of the potentially hazardous effects. As of last year, the FDA has put Chantix under the “black box label,” their highest warning label, in order to adequately advise consumers regarding the risk. Pfizer settled hundreds of cases with the families of patients who took Chantix and committed suicide.
Dealing with the fallout of a suicide is draining emotionally and financially. Even though money can never bring a loved one back, it can help ease the financial burden of their passing. If you’ve lost a loved one and believe someone may be liable, contact Mazow | McCullough today. We can help you navigate wrongful death law and advocate for your loved one in court. For a free consultation, call (978) 744-8000.