Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sometimes A Simple Car Accident Can Be More Than You Bargain For

We see it every day: an insured driver is deemed liable for a motor vehicle accident. There is a standard claim as the injured party seeks compensation for their bodily injuries and damages related to the accident. Typical case and review, right? Generally, yes – unless you also consider the potential wrongful death action that may arise from the injured party’s subsequent suicide, allegedly committed during insanity or delirium caused by the defendant’s negligent conduct. If this seems like a stretch, one should consider the holding in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, in the case of Young v. Swiney. 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 74445 (2014).


The underlying accident in Young occurred on June 16, 2010. Decedent Joseph Young was operating a pick-up truck in Cecil County, Maryland.   Young was a forty-three (43) year old married father of two (2) teenage girls, employed as a carpenter and millwright.  On the same date and time, Donn Swiney was operating an eighteen wheel tractor trailer owned by his employer, Industrial Transport Services, LLC. Investigation revealed Swiney was operating the tractor trailer at a high rate of speed and collided with the rear of Young’s pick-up truck, causing a chain reaction collision. Young complained of several injuries at the scene of accident before losing consciousness. He was extracted from the vehicle and transported to the hospital.

By all accounts, Young’s life took a significant downward spiral after the accident.  Given his injuries, he was unable to return to work and was subsequently terminated in December, 2010.  He underwent surgery on his elbow and spine in 2011; however, being unemployed, he then lost his medical insurance in March, 2012.  Without health insurance, Young was unable to obtain the required physical therapy to rehabilitate his cervical spine.  The lack of insurance became increasingly problematic, and a neurosurgeon recommended surgery to his neck and upper back in August, 2012.  Young’s employment prospects were also dim, as a vocational assessment revealed that he was unable to return to his previous employer, and that he had significant physical limitations, pain and depression. These factors, coupled with his lack of a high school diploma, made him a poor candidate to return to work.

In addition to his health and financial setbacks, Young faced additional personal challenges.  His family members described a complete personality shift after the accident, noting he was unable to control his anger, frequently argued with his wife over money, and yelled at his children.  This ultimately resulted in his wife and daughters leaving him and moving to Florida.

Young sought mental health treatment with Dr. Janet Anderson, Ph.D.  in May, 2012.  During this visit, Young described the significant pain he encountered since the accident, feeling suicidal, depressed, being unable to control his temper and behavior, and the detrimental impact of the accident on his entire family. Dr. Anderson strongly recommended Young obtain psychotherapy for suicidal depression.

After a family visit on September 6, 2012, Young and one of his daughters were involved in a serious verbal altercation that resulted in the police responding to his home.   Later that evening after his family left, Young committed suicide by ingesting alcohol, Flexeril and Tramadol.  Young left a suicide note and referred to himself as a “loser”. 

Young’s widow brought suit against Swiney and his employer, individually, as Personal Representative of his Estate, and as parents to the two (2) minor daughters.  Dr. Janet Anderson served as Plaintiff’s expert witness and concluded that Young’s suicide was directly and proximately caused by the psychosis he sustained as a result of the automobile accident.  Dr. Anderson’s opinion was based on a series of information including the autopsy report, depositions, police reports, meetings with Young and his family, as well as her training and experience in this field.

The Defense filed a Motion for Summary Judgment of the wrongful death claims arguing that the motor vehicle accident in June, 2010 was not the proximate cause of Young’s suicide in September, 2012, and challenging Dr. Anderson’s opinions as unreliable, lacking foundation,  not the product of any reliable methodology, and not based on sufficient facts or data.

Courts have long held that a Judge makes any preliminary determination regarding the admissibility of evidence, including expert opinions and qualifications.  In denying the Defendant’s motion, the Court relied on two (2) cases.  In 2005, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland held that suicide may be grounds for damages based on the negligence of another if  the negligent conduct causes the decedent’s insanity, delirium or uncontrollable impulse to commit suicide. Sindler v. Litman, 166 Md. App. 90, 877 A.2d 97 (2005).  Plaintiff’s expert provided such an opinion in this case.  Here, the Court found that the Plaintiff produced enough evidence to create a jury question on the expert opinion in question, such that a Motion for Summary Judgment should be denied. 

The Court also applied the Daubert standard in evaluating Dr. Anderson’s proffered expert testimony.  This evaluation includes an analysis of: (1) whether the theory or technique in question can be and has been tested; (2) whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication; (3) its known or potential error rate; (4) the existence and maintenance of standards controlling its operation; and (5) whether it has attracted widespread acceptance within a relevant scientific communityDaubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579  (1994). 

By applying Sindler and Daubert, the Court concluded that this issue be tried before a jury with expert testimony. The Court also noted that the Defense pointed to several issues that may be raised in a vigorous cross examination of Plaintiff’s expert, as opposed to bases for summary judgment.

The lesson to take away from Swiney, is that a routine motor vehicle accident may have significantly more implications beyond bodily injuries, property damages, and lost wages.  A claim may be made that an insured’s negligent conduct resulted in an injured party’s insanity or delirium, causing that person to commit suicide.  Considering the Court’s decision in Swiney¸ with sufficient evidence to support this opinion, it is still a question for a jury to decide.  

Article submitted by Tara A. Barnes 

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