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Wrongful death suicide claim revived on appeal

A mother’s claims are proceeding against Wentzville providers who treated and discharged her 14-year-old daughter before her suicide. The successful appeal clarifies causation for wrongful death by suicide claims.

The 14-year-old girl, D.G., died by suicide a day after she was discharged from a Wentzville hospital in 2016. Her mother, Stephanie Clark, alleged that the providers’ psychiatric evaluation and the decision to discharge D.G. fell below the standard of care and had caused or contributed to her death.

A circuit court had granted summary judgment in favor of the providers, who had argued that it was undisputed that they did not cause her death, they were immune from civil liability, and Clark lacked competent evidence to support her claim for aggravating circumstances damages.

The Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District reversed the judgment on March 7, stating that when the trial court said causation did not apply in this case, the trial court had “misconstrued” the 2011 Missouri Supreme Court ruling in Kivland v. Columbia Orthopaedic Group, which set the standard to determine a negligent defendant’s liability for a suicide.

The trial court had claimed that Kivland required a defendant to produce a physical injury that caused her to die by suicide.

“In this way, the trial court added a nonexistent element to Clark’s causation burden — that the Respondents committed some injurious and negligent act upon D.G. which in turn caused her to take her own life,” Judge James J. Dowd wrote.

Judges Kelly C. Broniec and Philip M. Hess concurred.

Matt Vianello of Jacobson Press in Clayton is an attorney for Clark. He said this opinion resolves a conundrum that’s become common in wrongful death suicide cases.

“I’m happy that there’s some clarification on this area of the law, because the interpretation of Kivland that the trial court relied on, and the defense counsel in this case pushed, has been arising in a lot of cases, a lot of suicide cases,” Vianello said.

The court also reversed the trial court’s blanket immunity because the state’s comprehensive psychiatric services law that would have granted immunity did not apply in the case.

It also determined the trial court applied the wrong version of the state’s aggravating circumstances damages statute and, in turn, the wrong burden of proof for her claim.

“In this regard, the trial court improperly forayed into the jury’s realm and applied the wrong standard,” Dowd wrote.

T. Michael Ward of Brown & James in St. Louis, an attorney for one of the providers, did not respond to requests for comment.

The case is Clark v. SSM Healthcare St. Louis et al., ED110638.

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