Can sexual assault be legally viewed as a cause of death when a victim commits suicide? Can you sue an alleged assailant for wrongful death in this situation? A recent case from the Alabama Supreme Court sheds some light on the answers to these questions.
In Michael W. Rondini, as personal representative of the Estate of Megan Rondini, deceased v. Terry J. Bunn, Jr., the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, Southern Division, a wrongful death suit in this matter certified this question for the Alabama Supreme Court’s review: “Whether a decedent’s suicide, which occurs several months (in this case, nearly eight months) after a defendant’s intentional tort (i.e., sexual assault and/or outrage) is a superseding cause breaking the chain of causation between the intentional tort and the decedent’s death?”
Megan Rondini (Megan) met Terry J. Bunn, Jr. (Bunn) on July 1, 2015, at a pub in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. They went to Bunn’s house in Cottondale, where Megan claimed Bunn falsely imprisoned and sexually assaulted her. The Federal Court determined that the truth of these allegations was a matter for a jury trial in another court. After the alleged assault, Megan was diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety from PTSD by a therapist. Megan left the University of Alabama and enrolled in the Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas in 2016. On February 24, 2016, Megan filled an intake form at the SMU health clinic, which noted that she was having suicidal thoughts. Megan committed suicide two days later on February 26, 2016.
Michael W. Rondini (Rondini), Megan’s father sued Bunn in the federal court under the Alabama wrongful death statute 6-5-410, Ala. Code 1975. Bunn, in his response motion to dismiss, cited Prill v. Marrone, 23 So. 3d 1 (Ala. 2009), and Gilmore v. Shell Oil Co., 613 So. 2d 1272 (Ala. 1993) to argue that the claim should be dismissed because suicide is a superseding cause that breaks the causal connection between the defendant’s actions and the decedent’s
death. The federal court denied the motion, stating that these cases only established that suicide breaks the chain of causation with negligent actions of the defendant, not intentional torts (such as sexual assault).
When Bunn moved for summary judgment two years later, re-asserting his argument, the federal court considered the evidence that Rondini had presented and found considerable proof of the allegations against Bunn. The court then viewed the question again of whether suicide on the part of the decedent is a superseding cause that breaks the chain of causation from an intentional tort on the part of the defendant. The federal court then certified its question for the Alabama Supreme Court and stayed the proceeding until they received an answer from the Court.
The Court reviewed Gilmore because the arguments before them hinged upon this case. In Gilmore, Michael Gilmore visited a friend who worked at a convenience store, where he found a handgun under the cash register and used it to commit suicide. Gilmore’s family sued the store, owner, franchise, and the friend for wrongful death, claiming that their negligence in leaving the gun out was a cause of Gilmore’s death. The Gilmore Court noted in its analysis that negligent party can only be held liable for an injury if it can be reasonably inferred that the injury was a consequence of the negligent action. If another party takes an action that can be reasonably seen as independent of the negligent action, the negligent party is not responsible.
The Court there held that Gilmore’s family did not have grounds to sue because the negligence of the defendants was not a direct cause of Gilmore’s suicide. The negligent act of leaving an openly accessible and un-attended gun did not directly influence Gilmore’s choice to take his life; he was free in his choice regardless of whether the negligent action was present or not. If there was no gun, he still could have decided to take his life. The Gilmore Court held that
the injured party’s actions could be considered a consequence of the negligent action if they are not reasonably expected, or if they show a higher level of culpability on the defendant’s part than negligence. The Court said that Gilmore’s death was not included in the “naturally flowing consequences of the defendants’ negligent conduct” 613 So. 2d at 1278.
After its review of Gilmore, the Court explained that, as a general rule, courts have viewed suicide as an intervening cause that breaks causation after Gilmore. However, there are two exceptions to this rule: (1) if the defendant is a custodian of the decedent (i.e. the decedent is in a hospital under the defendant’s care or imprisoned under the defendant’s guard) and (2) if the defendant caused an uncontrollable urge that led the decedent to commit suicide. In the federal court’s decision, it concluded that neither of these exceptions applied here. There was no evidence of a custodial relationship between Megan and Bunn at the time of her death as they were in different states. Since there was a passage of time between Bunn’s acts and Megan’s death, and she had sought mental health support, the second exception did not apply. Rondini, 434 F. Supp. 3d at 1277-78.
Rondini agreed that neither exception applied but argued that a third exception should be created for suicide as a result of intentional actions rather than negligence. The Court recognized that intentional-tort claims are different from negligence claims. The Court cited the Supreme Court of New Hampshire which said, “[t]he law of torts recognizes that a defendant who intentionally causes harm has greater culpability than one who negligently does so.” Mayer v. Town of Hampton, 127 N.H. 81, 85, 497 A.2d 1206, 1209 (1985). The Court reasoned that Bunn’s actions had an effect on Megan such that it led her to commit suicide and held that a wrongful-death action could be pursued against Bunn.
In its answer to the question certified by the federal court, the Court clarified that it could only speak to sexual-assault torts, not the whole range of intentional torts to which this rule could apply, because the case at hand dealt only with a sexual assault tort. As the federal court held that Rondini had submitted substantial evidence that Bunn had sexually assaulted Megan, the issue was whether it would be allowable under Alabama law for Rondini to pursue wrongful death. Because a person who commits an intentional tort is held to a higher standard of culpability than one who is guilty of negligence, the answer is yes: if a victim of sexual assault commits suicide, the perpetrator can be sued for wrongful death.
Brennan DePace was born and raised as a pastor’s child and has carried with him the strong Biblical values passed on from his father. DePace is the youngest of five children who received a rigorous and thorough home-schooled education.
He is now a Junior at Auburn University at Montgomery studying History, with the hopes of attending law school and becoming an attorney.