Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Not Her BFF's Keeper

By Jeffrey Thomson

Lenoci v. Leonard, 2011 VT 47 (mem.)

It is easy to argue that we owe a moral duty to guide and protect our friends when we recognize that they are acting self-destructively, but does the law require that we give care and support to troubled friends?  In general the answer is no. There is no legal duty to help—unless a relationship or an action draws you in and makes you liable for failing to stop the subsequent action or chain of actions.  In today’s case, the SCOV gives guidance on what legal duties exist or don’t exist between teenaged friends when one exhibits self-destructive behavior. 

Two nights before Alex Brown (age 15) took her life, she and Defendant (age 18) lied to their parents and headed out to a party at a friend’s house.  Defendant picked Alex up at her home and drove them to the party where they drank alcohol and danced.  Defendant was concerned that some of the young men at the party might “take advantage” of Alex, and at one point she stopped Alex from dancing altogether.  The girls ended the night by crashing at the apartment of a 19-year old man who shared his room with them.  Without Defendant’s awareness, Alex and the man had sexual intercourse during the night.

 The next day, Alex lied to her stepfather again and returned to the man’s apartment.  Once Alex left the house, her stepfather became suspicious.  Alex’s mother called the girl’s house, where Alex was supposed to be staying, and discovered the lie.  She then called Alex’s cell phone several times and left messages confronting Alex with her deceit.  The State Police were also called.  One officer called Alex’s cell phone twice and asked her to simply get in touch with either him or her mother to let them know she was all right. 

That night Alex sent numerous text messages to her friends describing the trouble that she was in for lying to her parents. She also sent numerous text messages to her boyfriend, who was away at college, one of which said, “I got caught tonight.  I’m grounded forever. Goodbye.”  Later, she left her boyfriend a voicemail on his cell phone in which she admitted to having sex with another man.  While she mentioned suicide in some of her text messages, she never sent Defendant such a message.

That evening Alex composed a suicide note, addressed primarily to her boyfriend, expressing her remorse.  About one week beforehand, she and her boyfriend had a fight over the phone during which she told him that she felt like committing suicide, and that she had even decided how she would take her life—by hanging herself from a tree in her yard.  On this night she carried out her plan, and in the morning her body was discovered by a neighbor.

Alex’s mother sued Defendant alleging that Defendant was negligent for bringing Alex to the apartment party, that Defendant should have intervened to prevent Alex from having sexual intercourse with the nineteen-year-old, and that, because she failed to do so, Defendant negligently caused Alex to suffer emotional harm which lead to her suicide.  To support a negligence claim, the mother had to show that:

1)  Defendant owed Alex a legal duty to keep her safe; 

2)  She breached this duty by failing to intervene or stop her friend; 

3)  This failure was the direct (the law uses the word “proximate”) cause of Alex’s death; and 

4)  This led to actual losses or damages to Alex. 

To support her claim that Defendant owed Alex a duty to protect her from having sexual intercourse, the plaintiff relied on the following chain of facts: that Defendant drove Alex to the party; that she knew Alex was surrounded by drinking and licentious behavior at the party which exposed her to the risk of sexual intercourse; and that Defendant was 18 years old while Alex was only a minor,.

The trial court and later the SCOV found that these facts did not create a legal duty for Defendant to prevent Alex from having sexual intercourse.  The SCOV rejects the argument that the first two facts created a duty to intervene, because the evidence suggests that Alex was acting under her own free will and that nothing that Defendant did created the risk that Alex would have sexual intercourse, nor was Alex coerced by Defendant in anyway to stay at the party or have sex. 

The SCOV is similarly dismissive of the difference in age because the law does not impose such duties on 18-year olds to protect their high school friends.  Furthermore, creating such a duty would be “considerable, transforming every high school friendship at the moment one friend turns eighteen into an in loco parentis relationship.”  Therefore, Defendant did not have the type of special relationship with Alex that leads to a duty to intervene.  

As a side note, such special relationships often require some level of agreement of guardianship, such parent/child, teacher/child or caregiver/child.  Defendant never agreed to act as Alex's guardian for the night.  Alex's parents never relinquished control of their daughter to Defendant, and, in fact, the girls were acting as equals in a plan which defied the wishes of both of their parents. 

Without a duty to intervene, the mother’s case fails as a matter of law.  The SCOV, however continues its analysis to other areas of the mother's case.  

It takes issue with the mother’s arguments that Defendant should have been able to foresee that her failure to intervene at the party would lead to Alex's suicide.  This argument is too speculative and unreasonable as it would have required Defendant to have anticipated the victim’s emotional state following intercourse.  The SCOV notes that “it was only on subsequent reflection that Alex regretted her choices, it cannot be reasonable to expect Defendant to have anticipated same.”

Finally, the SCOV finds that even if there were a duty to prevent Alex from having intercourse at the party, Alex's actions at the party were not the proximate cause of her suicide.  Relying on previous cases, the SCOV explains that the act of suicide breaks the chain of connection between another’s alleged acts and the death.  “This is because the act of suicide is considered to be a deliberate, intentional, and intervening act, which precludes a finding that a given defendant is, in fact, responsible for the harm.”  Therefore, the only way that a defendant’s act can be the proximate cause of another’s suicide is “when an injured person becomes insane, even temporarily, and that insanity prevents one from realizing the nature of one’s act or controlling one’s conduct.”

The mother argues that the sexual intercourse at the party caused Alex to temporarily lose sanity and that due to the intercourse she lost her ability to control herself.  Again, though, the facts undermine this contention.  As the SCOV notes, a full day passed between the intercourse event and Alex's suicide.  During that time she texted, said goodbye to her boyfriend and friends, and made plans to return, on her own, to the apartment.  Even before the events involving Defendant, Alex had spoken about committing suicide and the exact manner in which she would.  From these facts, it would be difficult to conclude, and the SCOV does not, Alex was suffering any type of temporary insanity, which would nullify Alex's will and control.
One thing that no one disputes is the tragedy of the events and the immense sadness that the mother must have felt and continues to feel.  She has lost her daughter, and no one can blame her efforts to seek legal recourse and justice where she feels wronged.  The feeling is in some sense universal.  When we hear about such senseless events, we want to find someone to blame.  

But that is the lesson, if there is one, from today's decision.  Teenagers are not each other's keepers.  While we hope that our children's friends will lead them in positive directions, we must know that law will not hold them responsible when something goes wrong.  In some sense, today's case was an attempt to make one area of the law, personal injury, try to do a job it was never intended to fulfill, healing the hurt left behind when a teen commits suicide.  

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