The suit against Amazon and the University of Pennsylvania over a student’s suicide using chemicals she bought through the online retail giant will be allowed to proceed, a common pleas judge has ruled.
Rejecting the argument that the suicide broke the chain of causation, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge John M. Younge denied preliminary objections from the online retailer and the school seeking to have the case dismissed. The rulings were issued Dec. 4 in Singh v. Amazon.com.
Although Younge’s rulings were issued without explanation, Amazon had contended that Arya Singh’s suicide was an intentional event that was unforeseeable, and therefore the case could not proceed against it.
However, Singh’s mother, who sued Amazon, the university and a Thai website that allegedly sold through Amazon the cyanide Singh used to kill herself, contended that restrictions imposed on selling the cyanide, and the lethal quality of the substance, were important in establishing the chain of causation back to Amazon.
“Unlike a kitchen knife, rope, bedroom sheet or a host of other objects, soluble cyanide salts are banned because of the risk of death posed. One who makes soluble cyanide salts available, or who breaches its duty to restrict their purpose does not need to discern whether the purchaser of soluble cyanide salt intends to cause death; that is the reason for its ban,” said the decedent’s mother, Sujata Singh, in a brief filed in November. “It is disingenuous, at best, to suggest that suicide by cyanide was unforeseeable.”
The brief was filed by Singh’s attorney, Stewart Cohen of Cohen, Placitella & Roth.
According to court documents, Arya Singh used soluble cyanide salts to kill herself in February 2013.
Singh had previously been sexually assaulted while a freshman nursing student at Penn, and after the incident was investigated, no charges were brought against the assaulter, who continued to live on campus, court documents said.
The complaint linked the alleged assault to behavioral problems Singh began to experience, including being arrested for drinking and missing classes.
Eventually, Singh was investigated for alleged academic misconduct, and placed on a mandatory leave. According to the complaint, within hours of being told that she had to leave university housing, Singh killed herself.
The complaint said that, in early December 2012, Singh had used a website “created, owned, operated and maintained” by Amazon to buy the cyanide tablets, and Amazon processed the payment.
The complaint noted Amazon changed its policies to block all sales of cyanide in the United States in February 2013, but contended Amazon should have known cyanide was being sold on its site dating back at least to May 2012.
The lawsuit alleges negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent hiring against the university, as well as negligence against Amazon for failing to stop the Thai website from selling banned substances.
Both Amazon and the University of Pennsylvania raised preliminary objections, contending the complaint and amended complaint were legally insufficient.
Amazon contended, among other things, that suicide is a “textbook example” of an unforeseeable, superseding cause that cannot form the basis of a negligence claim. The university contended that the law does not allow claims against a school over a suicide unless there was some kind of custodial control establishing a “special relationship.”
According to the university, Sujata Singh’s claims “fall short of establishing the essential elements that would justify the claims as a matter of law, and instead do nothing but assert that plaintiff’s suicide was ‘foreseeable,’ which is an entirely different issue.”
Singh contended the school’s policies and procedures regarding alcohol and sexual assault allegations created a duty, but the university failed to protect the decedent. But the school replied that the policies did not create a duty, and the plaintiff failed to show the school knew of Singh’s suicidal tendencies.
Amazon argued state law would not allow Singh’s claims to proceed given the suicide.
“Each of plaintiff’s claims requires plaintiff to prove that Amazon’s alleged negligence caused the decedent’s death. The decedent’s suicide makes such proof legally impossible,” Amazon contended in a memorandum filed by Conrad O’Brien attorney Howard M. Klein.
Singh replied that the cyanide was sold through Amazon at least 51 times before Arya Singh bought the salts, and 11 of those prior sales had resulted in deaths.
“Amazon knew or should have known that soluble cyanide salts were sold in the United States through its website for some time prior to Dec. 7, 2012, as the offers and/or sales of soluble cyanide salts through Amazon’s website via Thailand defendants dated back to at least May 28, 2012, and for some unknown period of time prior thereto resulted in deaths,” Singh said in a response.
Both Cohen and a spokeswoman for Conrad O’Brien did not return a message seeking comment. Penn’s attorney, Jeremy Mishkin of Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads, declined to comment.
Max Mitchell can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MMitchellTLI. •