In Turcios v. The DeBruler Company, a case from the Second District, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to decide a simply stated question: can a plaintiff state a claim for wrongful death as a result of a suicide?

Plaintiff and her husband lived in an apartment with their three children. Plaintiff is a Honduran immigrant and does not speak English fluently. In April 2011, they signed a one-year lease on an apartment. Twenty days later, they received a notice of eviction giving them 30 days to vacate the premises. Plaintiff sought out legal advice, and was told that the lease was valid and binding. The family also contacted Catholic Charities, which contacted an agent of the defendant who told them the lease was not valid, and could be revoked at any time. Ten days after receiving the eviction notice, they received a letter stating that the building would be demolished three weeks later. The letter stated that the washers and dryers would be removed in less than two weeks, and offered the plaintiff and her husband a week of free rent.

The defendant refused to accept a rent payment from plaintiff at the beginning of the next month. A week later, the plaintiff and her husband received another notice saying the building would be demolished. At a meeting with representatives of the defendant, plaintiff and her husband were allegedly offered $2,000 to move.

Three days later, defendant allegedly allowed demolition to begin around plaintiff’s unit. Five days after demolition began, plaintiff’s husband committed suicide in the apartment.

The plaintiff and her children moved in with a friend the next day, leaving most of their belongings in the apartment.  Less than a week later, defendant allegedly contacted plaintiff and told her she had to remove all her belongings from the apartment, as demolition would begin the following day. That day, the plaintiff and her children packed their belongings, even though the stairs to their 3rd floor apartment had been mostly demolished. As they were moving, an enormous rain storm ruined most of the family’s belongings.

Plaintiffs filed a five count complaint, purporting to allege claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, wrongful eviction, breach of contract, wrongful death and survivorship. The trial court dismissed the final two counts, holding that there is no claim for wrongful death or survivorship as a result of suicide.

The Appellate Court reversed. The usual view of the applicable law, the court wrote, was that a suicide was an intervening event which the tortfeasor cannot be expected to foresee. The court reviewed law in a variety of foreign jurisdictions and concluded that many had recognized a claim for wrongful death in connection with suicide, including at least one case in a federal court purporting to apply Illinois law, Collins v. Village of WoodridgeThe court concluded that the traditional bar on causes of action arising from suicide flowed from theories of negligence and contributory negligence, which had little place in an action alleging intentional torts and seeking punitive damages. The court concluded that the weight of authority does not support a per se bar on wrongful death claims arising from suicide. Defendant argued that Illinois tort law limited liability according to proximate cause, and suicide was always an intervening cause. But the Court held that a defendant’s negligence need only cause the plaintiff’s harm – the economic distress. It is not necessary that it be tied to all resulting and compensable damages. Accordingly, the court held that a victim’s suicide does not limit the plaintiff’s damages, so long as emotional distress is a substantial factor in causing the suicide. No per se bar existed on damages arising from a suicide.

We expect Turcios to be decided in six to eight months.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Rob Deutscher (no changes).