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A mental health facility cannot be held vicariously liable for the death of a mentally-challenged resident inadvertently caused by a worker’s suicide, a Northampton County judge has ruled. Suicide is an extraordinary event that cannot be reasonably foreseeable by an employer, Judge Stephen G. Baratta wrote in Loveless v. Lifepath Inc., PICS Case No. 03-1757 (C.P. Northampton June 9, 2003) Baratta, J. (9 pages). Consequently, the suicide of Warren J. Taylor must be considered outside the scope of his employment with Lifepath Inc., a residential facility in Bath, Pa. In another holding, Baratta dismissed claims of negligent supervision against Lifepath, alleging the facility failed to conduct a criminal background check or psychiatric testing of Taylor, and that it did not properly staff or maintain the residence. “Implicit in the argument is that Lifepath was negligent for its failure to prevent Mr. Taylor from committing suicide,” Baratta wrote, explaining his reasoning for dismissing the claim. “If the act of suicide is not foreseeable, then there can be no duty placed on Lifepath to supervise Mr. Taylor in order to prevent occurrence of an unforeseeable act.” The suicide occurred on March 1, 1998, when Taylor parked his running vehicle in an enclosed garage at the Lifepath facility and subjected himself to prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide fumes from the vehicle’s exhaust system, according to Baratta’s opinion. While Taylor’s vehicle was running, carbon monoxide seeped through the walls of the garage causing the death of resident Kevin Loveless, who was asleep in the adjoining residence. Harry and Mildred Loveless, individually and on behalf of Kevin Loveless’ estate, commenced suit on Feb. 24, 2000, against Lifepath and the administrator of Taylor’s estate, Baratta said. On Nov. 18, 2002, Lifepath moved for summary judgment of the charges of vicarious liability and negligent supervision. On the first issue, Baratta said the determination of whether an employee acted within the scope of his employment is typically a question for a jury. “Where, however, the employee commits an act encompassing the use of force which is excessive and so dangerous as to be totally without responsibility or reason, the employer is not responsible as a matter of law,” he said. Baratta said the Superior Court has also held that an assault motivated by personal animus or other outrageous conduct “is not actuated by an intent to perform the business of the employer.” Given that Taylor’s suicide was “so extraordinary as not to be reasonably foreseeable,” Baratta said it necessarily falls outside of his scope of employment. “His suicide is not the sort of act that can be considered of the kind and nature for which he was employed through Lifepath,” Baratta wrote. “Further, the suicide was not meant to serve the employer, nor was it an intentional act directed at Mr. Loveless.” On the negligence issue, Baratta said “an employer may be liable in negligence if it knew or should have known that an employee was dangerous, careless or incompetent and such employment might create a situation where the employee’s conduct would harm a third person.” While the plaintiffs claim that Lifepath was negligent in failing to conduct a criminal background check or psychiatric evaluation of Taylor, Baratta found no law in Pennsylvania “which places an affirmative duty on the employer to obtain a criminal record or a psychiatric evaluation to be hired as a caregiver for mentally disabled adults.” Moreover, the judge said, the plaintiffs’ other claims of supervisory negligence must fail, given that an act cannot be negligent unless the harm is foreseeable. “As we have discussed previously in this Order,” Baratta wrote, “Mr. Taylor’s suicide was not reasonably foreseeable.” Richard Gorski of Bethlehem served as counsel for the plaintiffs. Gary Samms and Harry Madonna of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel in Philadelphia were counsel of record for Lifepath.

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