The District Court of Appeal of the State of Florida, Fourth District, recently held that a lender cannot be held liable for its customer's suicide because it does not have any special relationship with the customer that gives rise to a duty to prevent the customer's suicide.
A copy of the opinion is available at: http://www.4dca.org/opinions/Nov.%202015/11-18-15/4D14-842.op.pdf
The personal representative of the estate of a mentally ill decedent sued the decedent's bank and its senior vice president for wrongful death. The amended complaint alleged that the decedent suffered from a type of severe anxiety that made him unable to deal with complex financial information.
The decedent and several of his family members met with the lender's representative about a obtaining a loan, and the lender allegedly agreed not to contact the decedent about any substantive or complex financial information. Representatives from the lender also allegedly met with the decedent's doctor to discuss his fragile mental condition.
However, the lender allegedly sent a letter to the decedent denying his loan application and a representative spoke with him on two occasions thereafter. The decedent then went to a motel, took an overdose of medications, and died 3 days later in the hospital.
The trial court granted the lender's motion to dismiss with prejudice because the lender owed no duty to decedent to prevent his suicide.
On appeal, the personal representative of the potential borrower's estate argued that the trial court should not have dismissed the complaint because the decedent's death was foreseeable and the lender assumed a duty when it agreed not to contact the decedent with negative substantive financial information.
The Court began its analysis with the black letter rule of tort law that a claim for negligence requires that the defendant owe a duty of care to the plaintiff, which is a question of law for the court. Whether a legal duty exists depends on foreseeability. The harm must be reasonably foreseeable in order for a duty to exist.
Under Florida law, when a person undertakes or agrees to provide a service, whether gratuitously or for consideration, he or she has a duty to act carefully and not expose others to an undue risk of harm.
Also under Florida law, the general rule is that there is no liability for another person's suicide unless there exists a specific duty of care, such as by "taking custody and control over another." For example, a duty to prevent suicide exists when a patient is committed to a mental hospital or where a child is under a school's supervision. Some Florida courts have also imposed liability on mental health providers whose negligent care results in the patient's suicide.
The Court noted, however, that "[a] legal duty requires more than just foreseeability alone. … A duty requires one to be in a position to 'control the risk.'" It then found that in the case at bar, the lender did not assume any specific duty to prevent the decedent's suicide because, even though it agreed not to share financial information with the decedent, the decedent was not in the lender's custody or control. Unlike a mental hospital, which has the ability to observe and control a patient, the lender "simply had no ability or responsibility to protect the decedent from committing suicide."
The plaintiff argued that one can be found liable for another's suicide so long as the suicide is foreseeable, citing the principle of maritime law that a ship owner has a duty to prevent foreseeable, self-inflicted injury to crew members. The Court rejected this argument because lenders and their customers "do not share the same, close relationship as ship owners and their seamen. A bank neither supervises its clients' day-to-day activities, nor exerts any type of supervisory control over them." The Court reasoned that the lender does not have such supervisory responsibility, and does not have any duty to "protect its clients against self-inflicted injury."
The Court affirmed the trial court's dismissal order, holding that because the lender had no duty or responsibility to the decedent arising from their relationship, it did not even have to reach the question of whether the suicide was foreseeable.
Ralph T. Wutscher
Maurice Wutscher LLP
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