Rehabilitation center that could reasonably foresee its patient’s suicide may not assert superseding cause defense to wrongful death claim.
Jeffrey Green was admitted to the voluntary nonmedical drug rehabilitation treatment center Anaheim Lighthouse for methadone addiction treatment. During his intake interview, Green stated that he was not suicidal and he was classified as “no safety risk.” When Green was transferred to the rehabilitation treatment program following detoxification, he wrote a note stating he would be suicidal if he left the clinic. The supervising psychologist conducted a suicide risk assessment and concluded Green was not suicidal. Accordingly, she did not contact the psychiatric emergency team, but instead placed Green under observation. Green committed suicide by jumping from the facility’s roof shortly thereafter. His mother filed a wrongful death and negligence complaint against Lighthouse. The jury found Lighthouse 65 percent negligent and Green 35 percent negligent, awarding $1.7 million for past and $2.2 million for future damages. Lighthouse appealed, requesting a new trial due to the trial court’s refusal of jury instructions on its defense that Green’s suicide was a superseding cause, foreclosing its liability.
The Court of Appeal affirmed. It explained that an independent intervening act may qualify as a superseding cause that relieves an actor of liability. The court also explained that an intentional suicide can be a superseding cause if it was not reasonably foreseeable. Here, however, in finding Lighthouse negligent, the jury necessarily found Green’s suicide was foreseeable to Lighthouse, thus his suicide could not have been a superseding cause. It followed that the trial court did not err by refusing to instruct the jury on Lighthouse’s superseding cause defense.
The bulletin describing this appellate decision was originally prepared for the California Society for Healthcare Attorneys (CSHA) by H. Thomas Watson and Peder K. Batalden, Horvitz & Levy LLP, and is republished with permission.