Negligence Claims Against School Following Son’s Suicide

Plaintiff’s Negligence Claims Against School Following Son’s Suicide Survive Motion to Strike, Proceeds Further Into Litigation

Michael Girard was a senior at Putnam High School during the 2005-2006 academic year when his guidance counselor learned that he was suicidal and/or had threatened to kill himself. However, the counselor took no action to aid Michael despite a conversation with him about the threat, and simply let him leave for home by himself. Michael also “expressed an intention to harm or kill himself in the presence of employees and agents of the High School, Board of Education, and Town” while on school grounds during school hours. Once again, no official action was taken by any of these individuals.

On March 23, 2006, Michael committed suicide by methadone toxicity.

At the time of Michael’s death, Putnam schools had a Suicide Prevention Policy (policy) in effect in the district. It set forth “detailed guidelines” on actions for staff to take when confronted with a scenario such as Michael’s. It required “immediate notification of emergency personnel or school psychologist or social worker,” and stated, “Under no circumstances is a student allowed to go home. The student must be released only to a parent, guardian, or other responsible adult.”

In light of this policy, Michael’s parents filed a negligence lawsuit against the Town of Putnam, Board of Education, and various school employees, including the guidance counselor (collectively “defendants”). However, the defendants submitted a motion to strike, challenging the legal sufficiency of the amended complaint’s allegations. They argued on two fronts:

  • “The act of suicide is a deliberate and intentional act” absolving the defendants from liability. In other words, because Michael’s death was an unforeseeable, intentional tort, the defendants were could not be sued for negligence.
  • The defendants also claimed governmental immunity protection, pursuant to Connecticut General Statutes §§ 52-557n and 52-557n(b)(6). “[M]unicipalities and its employees may be exposed to liability for acts of negligence unless the function involved the exercise of discretion,” and there is no immunity for ministerial acts (exercise of judgment and discretion not allowed). In essence, the defendants argued that whether to follow the policy was “a discretionary function.”

The Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Windham at Putnam denied the motion to strike as to these claims. It noted that while “suicide generally is an unforeseeable result that serves to preclude liability,” it does not automatically “break the chain of causation if it was a foreseeable result of the defendant’s tortious act.” In this case, the Court determined that Michael’s suicide “could be a foreseeable result of school staff’s failure to follow the suicide prevention policy.” As further explained:

It is foreseeable that if a person declares an intent to commit suicide, suicide is a foreseeable risk if nothing is done. Indeed, it was the written policy of the Putnam High School to immediately safeguard a student and obtain emergency medical or professional assessment and counseling for such a student in that circumstance. That is a clear cut warning of the need to take action. It creates a foreseeable harm as a consequence of a failure to act. No reasonable staff member could have concluded otherwise…

In addition, the Court was not persuaded by the defendants’ second argument. “[T]he Suicide Prevention Policy, by its terms, resolved that staff members are not qualified to assess whether someone is suicidal and it forbids discretion or delay in sending a student, who threatens suicide, to someone who is qualified to make the assessment.” When a staff member faces a situation like Michael’s, they must “follow their own mandatory procedures after a ministerial duty was triggered.” Therefore, the governmental immunity protection was inapplicable.

Ultimately, the Court granted the motion to strike as to intentional infliction of emotional distress claims (as to the parents), but permitted the negligence claims related to Michael’s death to proceed further into litigation. “The plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to show that the defendants committed negligent acts that increased the risk of accomplishment of a suicide by [Michael], and that their negligence was a substantial factor in causing that harm.”

Jury selection and the start of the trial are scheduled to begin at 9:30am on October 16, 2012. The case is Estate of Michael Girard et al. v. Town of Putnam et al., CV-08-5002754-S.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.

Should you have any questions about school liability or other education law matters, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya, Esq. He may be reached at Maya Murphy, P.C., 266 Post Road East, Westport, Connecticut (located in Fairfield County), by telephone at (203) 221-3100, or by email at JMaya@mayalaw.com.