Where Suicide Is Caused by Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, Illinois Now Recognizes Ensuing Actions for Wrongful Death and Survival

by Wilson Elser
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The Illinois Appellate Court has held, as a matter of first impression in the state, that where a plaintiff can satisfy the elements of the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress and the emotional distress is a substantial factor in causing a decedent’s suicide, causes of action for wrongful death and survival based on the suicide are now cognizable. Although careful to draw the distinction between negligence and intentional torts in cases where the defendant’s actions cause emotional distress that leads to a suicide, the Appellate Court’s opinion in Turcios v. DeBruler Company, 2014 IL App (2d) 130331, nevertheless opens the door to a wide variety of wrongful death and survival claims that were previously not recognized.

Facts
On April 20, 2011, plaintiff Maria Turcios and decedent Nelsyn Caceres signed a lease for an apartment located in the defendant’s apartment complex. They were to reside in the apartment with two of their three children from May 1, 2011, through April 30, 2012.

On May 10, 2011, the defendant notified the couple that they were being evicted and had 30 days to vacate the apartment because the building had been sold and was going to be demolished beginning on June 10. From May 12 to May 18, the defendant called the couple repeatedly, pressuring them to move as soon before June 10 as possible; the defendant also sent written notices stating the same thing on May 20 and May 31. On June 1, the plaintiff attempted to pay the next month’s rent but the defendant declined to accept it. On June 7, the defendant sent another written notice advising of the June 10 demolition date and offering to provide the family with another unit free for 30 days. The couple declined and refused to leave the apartment. On June 15, the decedent committed suicide in the apartment; plaintiff and the children moved out the next day.

In a five-count complaint, the plaintiff asserted claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, wrongful eviction, breach of contract, wrongful death and survival. As to the wrongful death and survival counts, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant’s conduct vis-à-vis their eviction from the apartment had caused the decedent emotional distress, which in turn caused him to commit suicide. The trial court dismissed the wrongful death and survival counts on the grounds that, under Illinois law, there are no such causes of action where the death is a suicide. The trial court based its decision on the per se rule barring recovery for a death resulting from suicide in an action based on the defendant’s negligence.

Analysis
The appellate court reversed, reasoning that “the weight of foreign authority, related principles of Illinois law, and the Restatement (Second) of Torts all disfavor a rule allowing a defendant to escape liability for an intentional wrongful act that proximately causes emotional distress that is a substantial factor in bringing about a suicide.”

As to the “weight of foreign authority,” the court looked to recent decisions of the reviewing courts of Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Wyoming and Indiana as well as the U.S. District Courts for the Western District of Pennsylvania, the District of Massachusetts and the Northern District of Illinois. The courts in these cases all found that liability for wrongful death and survival may lie in the context of a suicide where the defendant’s conduct is intentional for two reasons based in general tort law. First, the law of torts recognizes that a defendant who intentionally causes harm has greater culpability than one who negligently does so; second, when the wrong alleged is intentional, the defendant is responsible for all injuries directly caused by it even when the injuries are not foreseeable.

With respect to “related principles of Illinois law,” the court noted two additional points:

  • The first concerns the nature of the damages for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress. In Illinois, punitive damages may not be recovered for this tort. The Illinois Supreme Court’s rationale for this rule is that “compensatory damages will be sufficiently punitive” because the tort is based on “the outrageous quality of the defendant’s conduct.” As a result, despite being classified as compensatory, damages awarded for intentional infliction of emotional distress have a punitive element.
  • Second, the doctrine of contributory negligence does not apply when a defendant commits an intentional tort. In Illinois, a plaintiff’s contributory negligence is “a species of intervening cause,” and intervening cause analysis is inapplicable in the context of an intentional tort. 

Finally, section 46 of the Restatement (Second) of Torts – “Outrageous Conduct Causing Severe Emotional Distress” – states that a tortfeasor is liable for not only intentionally caused emotional distress but also for “bodily harm” resulting from that emotional distress.

Conclusion
Although the appellate court characterized its holding as “narrow,” the elements of the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress provide much leeway for plaintiffs seeking to assert a wrongful death claim following a suicide.

These elements are:

  • Extreme and outrageous conduct
  • Intent or knowledge by the actor that there is at least a high probability that the conduct would inflict severe emotional distress and reckless disregard of that probability
  • Resulting severe emotional distress.

Notably, the second element can be satisfied in one of two ways – intent or knowledge plus reckless disregard. This means that it is not strictly necessary to prove actual intent in all cases seeking recovery for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Wilson Elser will continue to monitor Turcios and its application and report further developments as they occur.

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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