Earlier this month, the Illinois Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Turcios v. The DeBruler Company. Turcios poses a simple question: can a plaintiff state a claim for wrongful death arising from a suicide? Our detailed summary of the underlying facts and lower court decisions in Turcios is here.
In April 2011, plaintiff and her husband signed a one-year lease on an apartment. Less than three weeks later, the couple received a notice of eviction giving them 30 days to vacate the premises. Ten days after receiving the notice, they received a letter stating that the building would be demolished in three weeks. 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.
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.
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 arising from a suicide. The Appellate Court reversed.
Counsel for the defendant began the argument. As a general rule, counsel explained, defendants are liable only for proximately caused injuries. A defendant is only the legal cause of an incident if a reasonable person would see the plaintiff’s circumstances as a natural and probable result of the defendant’s conduct. The court has held that suicide is an independent intervening cause. Here, plaintiff claims that the usual rule doesn’t apply in cases of intentional infliction of emotional distress. The plaintiff cites out of state cases, but in order to recognize the tort, defendant argued, the Court would have to eliminate legal cause as an element of intentional tort cases. Counsel argued that every intentional tort case he’s found requires proximate cause, but the Appellate Court said that it’s only necessary that the emotional distress be proximately caused by the conduct, not the damages. That selective application of the principles isn’t supported by any language in the intentional infliction of emotion distress cases, counsel argued. The Appellate Court relied on Section 46 of the Restatement, according to counsel. But the fact that Section 46 doesn’t mention intervening cause, legal cause or foreseeability doesn’t mean that these concepts don’t apply to intentional infliction of emotional distress. Counsel argued that there were no Illinois cases involving intentional torts where proximate cause hadn’t been applied as an element of the claim. Indeed, the plaintiff’s claim not only failed under Illinois law – it wouldn’t be adequate under the law of any of the alternative states counsel relied upon either. No state in the country would hold that plaintiff’s claim states a cause of action, and the Court should not be the first, counsel argued in closing.
Counsel for the plaintiff followed, arguing that the issue was whether a person who commits intentional wrongdoing will be liable when his or her act causing emotional distress was a substantial factor in causing the plaintiff’s suicide. Many courts have held that there is a significant distinction between persons acting intentionally and negligently, counsel argued. Justice Theis asked counsel whether he was tethering his argument to the tort of intentional infliction. Counsel said yes, the other jurisdictions’ cases did not involve intentional torts. The Chief Justice asked what happens if the victim goes out and hurts someone else – was there transferred liability for that? Counsel said no. So the liability was solely for suicide, the Chief Justice asked? Counsel answered that defendants are not liable for the criminal acts of the victim. The Chief Justice asked what would happen if the plaintiff was so distressed that he or she struck kids in a schoolyard. Counsel answered that at some point, there must be a limit to liability. All these cases involve suicide, counsel argued. Whether the rule goes beyond suicide can be left for another day. Justice Theis asked counsel what the Court should do with Martin v. Heinhold Commodities, Inc., which rejected any distinction between negligent and intentional acts. Counsel answered that Martin had a narrow meaning, applying only to intentional torts such as fraud rather than all intentional torts. Justice Thomas suggested that the Court’s phrase “such as fraud” in Martin was meant to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Counsel answered that the opinion is ambiguous. There is something about fraud, deceit and breach of fiduciary duty requiring a particularly acute connection between actions and damages. Justice Thomas asked whether counsel’s argument rested on how the Court interpreted the language “such as fraud” in Martin – as exclusive or inclusive. No, counsel answered, and here’s why. Counsel argued that no one had ever brought a similar case – an intentional tort followed by a suicide. The Court should take a look at what every other jurisdiction and the commentators have said – that there is a meaningful distinction between negligent and intentional conduct. To the extent that Martin has language foreclosing the plaintiff’s claim, the plaintiff is asking that the Court reconsider. Justice Theis suggested that the four out-of-state cases the plaintiff relied upon set out differing rules. What was the plaintiff proposing? Counsel argued that the issue was as stated in the PLA: whether Illinois should recognize a wrongful death claim where the conduct is a substantial factor in bringing about the suicide. Justice Theis suggested that the out-of-state cases were much more narrow than the plaintiff’s proposed rule, and counsel agreed, although several recognized a distinction between intentional and negligent tort. An intentional wrongdoer, counsel argued, should be liable for whatever happens. Justice Thomas suggested that the plaintiff’s rule would include school bullying, and counsel agreed that it would.
Counsel for the defendant began his rebuttal by arguing that although this was a case of first impression for the interrelation of suicide and intentional infliction, it was not the first case involving suicide and an intentional tort. In Luss v. Village of Forest Park, the Appellate Court applied the suicide rule and held that an intervening cause barred all intentional tort claims. The plaintiff’s cause of action was not sufficient in Illinois or any of the four other jurisdictions plaintiff relied upon. Counsel closed by arguing that the Court should not be the first to recognize a cause of action under such circumstances.
We expect Turcios to be decided in three to four months.