Vanderbilt Law Review

First Page



If suicide is a deliberate, intentional act by an individual, how can one person be "civilly liable for causing the suicide of another"? The paradox suggested by this question has caused many courts to shy away from imposing civil liability for causing suicide.' In certain situations,however, a growing number of courts are permitting recovery. Since suicide is on the increase both in numerical terms and in rank as a cause of death in the United States it can be expected that even more tort claims will be brought by parties attempting to fix civil responsibility on someone other than their beloved decedent. Psychiatrists tell us that the very topic of suicide produces considerable uneasiness in most people. This may explain why few courts have articulated meaningful standards for deciding whether to impose civil liability for causing suicide. A study of the psychiatric literature on the causes of suicide reveals the complexity of the environmental factors that may lead to an individual's "decision" to take his own life. Nevertheless, when claims have been brought on the ground that one individual has "caused" the suicide of another, courts tend to focus on the state of mind of the suicide at the very second he terminates his life-a fact that, if ascertainable at all, is only a small part of the total psychiatric picture of what caused the suicide to occur. Courts, moreover, camouflage with the use of the talisman "proximate cause" the difficult cause in fact question before them: how important from the psychiatric viewpoint was the defendant's act in bringing about the suicide?