Negligence • Duty • Common Carrier • Pain and Suffering • Wrongful Death/Survival Claims

Hudak-Bisset v. Cty. of Lackawanna, PICS Case No. 14-0509 (C.P. Lackawanna March 19, 2014) Minora, J. (32 pages).

In a decision diverging from a line of Pennsylvania cases, the court of common pleas granted plaintiff leave to amend her complaint to add wrongful death and survival claims against the defendant, a common carrier, where decedent committed suicide due to pain and depression he suffered as a result of a car accident caused by defendant years prior. Motion to amend granted.

This matter arose from a motor vehicle accident that occurred on May 13, 2005. According to the original complaint, a bus owned and operated by defendant, the County of Lackawanna, disregarded a stop sign and struck a vehicle driven by George Hudak. In May 2007, Hudak filed a negligence action seeking damages for the personal injuries he suffered in the accident.

On Sept. 11, 2011, Hudak took his own life, apparently due to the chronic, severe and permanent pain he experienced after the car accident. Hudak left a suicide note, stating that he “could not take the pain he was experiencing every day and that the medicine was not working and he was tired of it.” Hudak had lived with pain in excess of six years.

Hudak left a will naming plaintiff, Shannon Hudak Bisset, as the executrix of his estate. On Dec. 5, 2011, a notice of death and substitution of personal representative were filed with the court. Here, plaintiff sought leave of court to amend the complaint to add claims based on the Wrongful Death Act, at 42 Pa.C.S. §8301, and the Survival Act, at 42 Pa.C.S. §8302.

The court of common pleas considered whether plaintiff ought to be granted leave to amend the complaint to include wrongful death and survival claims and thus be allowed to pursue damages for a suicide allegedly secondary to the accident-related injuries and chronic pain caused by defendant, a common carrier.

Addressing this complicated issue, the court assessed the extent and duration of the duty and proximate cause defendant owed to plaintiff-decedent and looked to McPeake v. William T. Cannan Esq. P.C., 553 A.2d 439 (Pa. Super. 1989) wherein the Superior Court stated: “Generally suicide has not been recognized as a legitimate basis for recovery in wrongful death cases.”

The court cited limited exceptions in the context of workers’ compensation, mental health professionals and institutions, and custodial relationship, none of which were at issue here.

Pursuant to McPeake, “a defendant will not be found to have had a duty to prevent a harm that was not a reasonably foreseeable result of the prior negligent conduct.” Pennsylvania state courts and federal courts applying Pennsylvania law appear to have consistently relied on the McPeake decision, which held that an attorney’s duty to provide adequate representation did not extend to protecting a client from his suicidal tendencies.

Plaintiff urged the court to allow her complaint amendments so as to challenge the general rule regarding suicide deaths due to the unbroken, logical chain of causation that the facts in this case presented, including decedent’s suicide note, which tied all the facts together without need for expert testimony. The court considered a number of factors to determine whether such a duty should be found to exist, including the relevance between the parties, the social utility of the actor’s conduct, the nature of the risk and foreseeability of the harm and the overall public interest in the proposed solution.

Ultimately, the court rejected defendant’s argument that the court should follow McPeake and its progeny. The view that suicide is always an independent intervening act relieving the tortfeasor of liability is too restrictive, the court reasoned, citing Mackin. As such, the court granted plaintiff leave to amend her complaint with wrongful death and survival claims, while noting that it would favorably entertain a request for an interlocutory appeal.