California is one of the few states that recognizes that sometimes suicide is a wrongful death where someone else is legally to blame.
A wrongful death claim following a suicide is much more sensitive and difficult to prove than others, but in certain situations, the surviving family may file a lawsuit to hold the negligent party responsible. It is important to discuss your situation with an experienced lawyer because statutes of limitations can bar your wrongful death claim if you wait too long.
What is wrongful death?
“Wrongful death” is a legal term referring to a death resulting from someone else’s negligence or intentional act. A representative may be permitted to file a lawsuit on behalf of the surviving family members for their loss.
A successful lawsuit cannot bring a loved one back, but it can provide the financial resources to pay for medical and funeral bills, as well to replace the income that the loved one may have provided. It can also hold the responsible party accountable– and help prevent future tragedies to others.
When can someone be liable for suicide in California?
Those family members closest to the deceased may be able to file a claim against someone who:
- Owed the deceased person a special duty of care and was negligent in a way that caused the suicide; or
- Engaged in extreme behavior like taunting or ridicule that caused extreme emotional distress leading to suicide.
Certain types of relationships give rise to the type of duty that can lead to wrongful death liability. These include a patient with their therapist, doctor, or counselor, since these professionals may have a duty to evaluate the patient’s mental health. In the case of bullying or taunting, no such relationship is necessary. If you have questions about who may have played a role in a loved one’s suicide, discuss the situation with a wrongful death attorney.
What do you need to prove in a wrongful death case?
No matter how the death arose, a plaintiff needs to be able to prove that the defendant:
- Owed a duty to the deceased person;
- Breached that duty; and
- The breach caused the damages in a reasonably foreseeable way.
When the defendant is someone who had a special relationship with the deceased person, like a doctor or therapist, they have a duty to meet a minimum standard of care. If failing to meet that standard leads to their patient’s suicide, it may be grounds for a wrongful death suit.
Even outside a special relationship, people have a general duty not to cause harm to others. If someone willfully inflicts emotional harm, they too can potentially be liable for reasonably foreseeable consequences of their actions.
Special considerations in suicide cases
When a loved one dies by suicide, a lawsuit can raise very sensitive issues. First, in a negligence lawsuit, the harm must have been reasonably foreseeable. Suicides are often sudden and unexpected, making this a difficult element to prove. In the process, sensitive personal matters may end up being made public in court.
When the defendant is a doctor, therapist, or another professional bound by rules of confidentiality, the decedent’s right to privacy continues after death. It is also necessary to prove that the likelihood of harm outweighed the patient’s right to confidentiality, or the professional would have committed an ethical violation by disclosing relevant conversations. Expert witnesses will be required to prove a breach of professional duty.
Discuss your case with an experienced attorney
Life after the sudden loss of a loved one can be complicated and confusing. If you believe someone’s wrongful actions caused your family member’s suicide, consider speaking with a Los Angeles wrongful death attorney. The Salamati Law Firm offers aggressive yet compassionate representation to those left behind after a wrongful death. Call today to schedule a free consultation.