Illinois Federal Court Applies Traditional Medical Malpractice Ruling to Suicide Lawsuit

John Dux was alleged to have committed suicide because of a medical-malpractice incident at the Hines Veterans Administration Hospital in Maywood, Ill. The lawsuit brought by his daughter was filed against the United States government under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which included a claim for wrongful death.

The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The U.S. district judge who considered the case had to decide whether Illinois precedent on proximate causation blocked the wrongful-death claim.

With two exceptions, Illinois follows the traditional rule that “a plaintiff may not recover for a decedent’s suicide following a tortious act because suicide is an independent intervening event that the tortfeasor cannot be expected to foresee.” Luss v. Village of Forest Park, 377 Ill.App.3d 318 (2007).

The first exception to the general rule applies when a decedent “becomes insane and bereft of reason” because of “an injury upon his head” and “as a result thereof takes his own life.” Stasiof v. Chicago Hoist & Body Co., 50 Ill.App.2d 115 (1964).

The second exception involves alleged medical malpractice in preventing a suicidal patient from killing herself. Winger v. Franciscan Medical Center, 299 Ill.App.3d 364 (1998).

In the Dux case, the federal district court judge concluded that neither of the two exceptions applied and that the daughter was obligated to follow “the traditional rule” followed by “three districts of the Illinois Appellate Court.”

The judge noted in a footnote saying:

“In this court’s view, the traditional rule applied by the Illinois Appellate Court is misguided. As several courts and commentators have recognized, the rule is premised on an antiquated view of suicide as being a wholly voluntary act.”

In December 2009, doctors at Edward Hines Veterans Administration Hospital in Maywood told Dux that tissue from Dux’s prostate tested positive for cancer. On the advice of his doctors, Dux underwent a surgical procedure known as prostatectomy.

During the months following the surgery, Dux suffered from incontinence, sexual dysfunction and depression.

In February 2010, the doctors at the Veterans Administration told Dux that they were wrong about the diagnosis because they had mistakenly switched the tissue from Dux’s biopsy with another patient and in fact, Dux’s biopsy was negative.

However, the side effects of the prostatectomy procedure worsened including Dux’s depression. On Sept. 24, 2010, Dux committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

The two parties to the case moved for partial summary judgment on the issue of whether the government’s breach proximately caused Dux’s death.

“Traditionally, Illinois courts have found suicide to be an unforeseeable act that breaks the chain of causation required by proximate cause” Johnson v. Wal-Mart, 588 F.3d 439 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing Luss v. Village of Forest Park, 878 N.E.2d 1193 (Ill.App. 2007)).

The court stated that in this case, the government was correct that if Illinois’ general rule that a negligent act cannot be liable for a victim’s decision to kill himself applies in this case, Dux’s wrongful-death claim will fail as a matter of law. Thus, the claim will survive only if Dux can satisfy one of the two exceptions to the general rule.

As to the first rule, there was no evidence that Dux was insane or bereft of reason after undergoing the radical prostatectomy. To the contrary, the plaintiff’s expert testified that there was no ”evidence of psychosis,” that Dux “knew right from wrong after the surgery” and that there was “no evidence” that Dux was incompetent in the days and weeks leading up to his death.

In addition, the plaintiff cannot show that the “psychiatric malpractice” exception applies to Dux’s case. The Winger court expressly distinguished that case from “general medical-malpractice actions” such as this one, where the negligence is”in the diagnosis or treatment” as opposed to “in the failure to carefully protect the patient from inflicting self-harm.” Winger, 701 N.E.2d at 815.

Because Illinois’ general rule that a negligent actor cannot be liable for a victim’s decision to kill himself bars Dux’s wrongful-death claim and because plaintiff cannot establish that Dux’s case falls under any exception in the general rule that is recognized by Illinois courts, the government’s motion for summary judgment on the issue of proximate cause was granted. Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment was denied.

Dux v. United States, No. 11 CV 7142 (Sept. 24, 2014).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling medical malpractice cases, birth injury cases and nursing home abuse cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of a medical provider for more than 38 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Palos Heights, Palatine, Hinsdale, Flossmoor, Homewood, Highwood, Joliet, Romeoville, Bolingbrook, Lansing, Calumet City, Evanston, Wilmette, Niles, Maywood, Morton Grove, Waukegan, Schaumburg, Chicago (Wicker Park, Rogers Park, Jefferson Park, Lincoln Square), Grayslake and Crystal Lake, Ill.

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