In the closing days of the May term, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously declined an invitation to create a tort cause of action for wrongful death in cases where the decedent committed suicide. Our detailed summary of the underlying facts and lower court decisions in Turcios v. The DeBruler Company is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.
Turcios arose from a dispute over an apartment in Park City, Illinois. The plaintiff and decedent allegedly entered into a year’s lease for the apartment beginning May 1, 2011, tendering the required security deposit and first month’s rent. Only ten days into the lease, the plaintiff and decedent received what purported to be a 30-days’ notice of eviction. A few days later, the couple received a demand that they vacate the apartment by June 9. They allegedly received another demand on May 31, and on June 7, purportedly received an offer to be transferred to another unit for the month of June rent free. The couple allegedly got two phone calls as well, pressuring them to move, and their tender of June rent was refused. While all this was going on, the couple sought legal advice and was told that the lease was valid and enforceable; they called an agent of the defendant and were allegedly told that the landlord had the right to cancel the lease unilaterally at any time, and the lease was no longer valid.
Even though the couple and their children were still occupying the apartment, demolition began on June 10. Five days later, the decedent committed suicide in the apartment.
The plaintiff’s amended complaint purported to state claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, wrongful eviction, breach of contract, wrongful death and survival. The Circuit Court granted partial summary judgment dismissing the wrongful death and survival claims, holding that there was no cause of action in Illinois as a matter of law for wrongful death by suicide. The court granted Rule 304(a) language, and an interlocutory appeal was taken. The Appellate Court reversed, holding that the plaintiff could state a cause of action for wrongful death as long as the complaint adequately pled that the emotional distress deliberately caused by plaintiff was a substantial factor in the suicide.
In an opinion by Justice Theis, the Supreme Court reversed. Before the Court, the defendants argued that the concept of foreseeability, embodied in the doctrine of proximate causation, limited the liability of both negligent and intentional tortfeasors. The plaintiff responded, citing scattered cases from other jurisdictions, that where an intentional tortfeasor was a substantial factor in the suicide – in other words, a cause in fact – the defendant was responsible, regardless of whether the harm was foreseeable.
The problem, the Court found, was that if liability was divorced from foreseeability, then the defendant would necessarily face “open-ended and limitless liability for injury, no matter how abnormal, extraordinarily, irregular, or remote the injury may be.” The Court had previously rejected such a notion in Martin v. Heinold Commodities, Inc., but the Appellate Court had held that Heinold was limited to fraud, rather than all intentional torts. But there was no basis for treating intentional infliction of emotional distress any differently than fraud, the Court found.
Still, the Court didn’t slam the door shut permanently on the possibility of a cause of action for wrongful death via suicide. The Court left open the possibility that in a “rare case” a plaintiff might be able to plead facts sufficient to overcome the common law presumption that suicide is always an unforeseeable result of tortious conduct. This was not such a case, however. Therefore, the usual common law presumption applied, the suicide was unforeseeable as a matter of law, and the wrongful death and survival claims failed.