There has long been a common perception that suicide is more common around the holidays—an understandably difficult time for folks who have lost someone they care about or who might be otherwise isolated from the people they love.
According to the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics, the suicide rate is actually the lowest in December. Regardless, mental health generally and suicide is a major public health crisis in our country. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for all Americans and each year more than 36,000 people take their own lives, according to the CDC.
Suicide is truly awful. The loss of any loved one is tragic. If we are honest with ourselves, any time anyone calls us about any death or serious injury—it resonates with us on a personal level and it affects us. We'd be lying if we said it did not. But, inevitably, our response has to be to look at the situation carefully for the survivors who call us and ask: “Can we help? And if so, how?”
Sometimes folks call our office and they believe that the death of their loved one—though it was ruled a suicide—could have been prevented but for someone else's negligence. So, the question we face is: “Can a suicide be the subject of an Oregon or Washington State wrongful death suit?”
Very generally speaking, in Washington and Oregon, if a person takes his or her own life it is not likely a viable “wrongful death” claim. Four specific elements are necessary for a suicide to constitute a wrongful death:
- A person or entity had a duty of care to the victim;
- The established duty of care was breached by the person or entity owing it to the victim;
- The breach caused the death of the victim; and,
- Damages, like pain and suffering and possibly others, were suffered by the victim's estate and its heirs due to the wrongful death of the victim.
If these elements are not present, a wrongful death lawsuit will not likely succeed.
Clearly, a person who is responsible for his or her own death cannot be said to have owed a duty of care to himself or herself in the suicide context. In this context, a duty of care would refer to the obligation a person or entity has to other persons to reasonably prevent harm to those other persons.
As an example, a security guard on duty in a public building may have a duty to close a roof-access door while checking that part of the premises where it is foreseeable that a person might try and gain access to the roof in order to commit suicide. This fact-pattern might seem to be a bit of a stretch, but it is based upon real facts involved in a somewhat recent Oregon wrongful death suit that our office is aware of.
The bottom line is that the likelihood of a suicide being the subject of a successful wrongful death claim is low. Even under the circumstances described above where the security guard contributed, arguably, on some level to the person ultimately committing suicide—his contribution to the suicide or the “wrongful death” was more probably than not minimal (as compared to the person who thereafter chose to take his or her own life intentionally).
If a loved one died and you believe someone else was responsible for it, you may have a wrongful death claim. This blog post is not meant to discourage viable and credible claims. To the extent you would like to talk about this subject with an attorney, feel free to give one of our attorneys a call.
More importantly and more urgently—if you know someone who is struggling with depression or anxiety—please visit this resource through the web site of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and let that person know that you care and that they are loved, if you are able.