Suicide of another held not to support negligence action in District of Columbia

In Rollins v. Wackenhut Services, No. 10-00047 (D.D.C. Aug. 10, 2011), the court dismissed wrongful death and survival actions brought against an employer and a pharmaceutical company by the mother of a twenty-three year old man who was working as an armed security guard when he committed suicide with his work-issued pistol.

The plaintiff alleged that the employer was negligent for failing to do an adequate background check of the decedent before hiring him to a security guard position in which he would be entrusted with a firearm. The plaintiff also brought a wrongful death claim against a pharmaceutical company for manufacturing and distributing a drug that the decedent was taking for his mental issues, despite the drug's known risks of increasing suicidality in certain patients.

The employer first argued that the district court was without jurisdiction because the D.C. Worker's Compensation Act provided the exclusive remedy for injuries that occur during the course of a worker's employment. However, the Act does not apply "where injury to the employee was occasioned solely by his intoxication or by his willful intention to injury or kill himself or another." D.C. Code sec. 32-1503(d). The Court found that the exception set forth in D.C. Code sec. 32-1503(d) applies and the decedent's suicide was not covered by the Act.

Next, the employer argued that the plaintiff failed to state a claim against it, on the grounds that the general rule in the District of Columbia is that a plaintiff may not recover damages in negligence from the suicide of another. This is because suicide generally is considered to be a deliberate, intentional, and intervening act which precludes a finding that a given defendant is, in fact, responsible for the decedent's death. Or in other words, suicide is an intervening and independent cause of death which breaks the chain of causation. There are two recognized exceptions to this rule: (1) Where the actor's negligent conduct so brings about the delirium or insanity of another as to make the actor liable for it; and (2) where the defendant has a special relationship involving the treatment or custodial control over the deceased that imposes a duty to take reasonable steps to prevent a reasonably foreseeable suicide. Neither exception applied in this case.

The Court also dismissed the product liability claims against the manufacturers of Abilify on the grounds that the complaint failed to state any factual basis for a strict liability claim based on a defective product. The plaintiff did not meet her burden to allege facts showing that Abilify is defective or is not a reasonably safe product.