Suicide by Overdose: Should South Carolina Recognize the Uncontrollable Impulse Exception?

By Amy E. McLaren, associate at Willson Jones Carter & Baxley, PA

Almost any night of the week a news program showcases the opioid crisis in this country. Whether class actions against the drug companies, medical malpractice claims against the doctors who prescribe these medications, or criminal charges against illegal users themselves, there is no shortage of litigation related to this crisis either. The South Carolina Supreme Court will soon answer a question, which may control whether civil lawyers see a whole new set of cases related to opioid addiction in this state.

As every attorney learned from torts class in law school, a plaintiff establishes negligence by proving a duty of care owed by the defendant; a breach of that duty by a negligent act or omission; that the breach was a proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury; and the plaintiff has damages as result of said negligence. When those elements are broken down further, proximate cause requires both proof of causation in fact and legal cause. Bramlette v. Charter-Medical-Columbia, 302 S.C. 68, 393 S.E.2d 914, 916 (1990). A defendant may be liable for any natural and probable consequence of the defendant’s negligence. Id., see also Bailey v. Segars, 346 S.C. 359, 550 S.E.2d 910 (Ct. App. 2001), cert. dis., 354 S.C. 57, 579 S.E.2d 605 (S.C. 2003). Therefore, the plaintiff proves legal cause by establishing that the injury occurred as a probable and natural consequence of the defendant’s negligence. See Bramlette.

Generally when suicide occurs, it breaks the chain of proximate cause to allege negligence. For example, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that it was not foreseeable that an incarcerated individual would commit suicide in his jail cell. “The real proximate cause of [decedent’s] death was that he no longer wished to live. There is no casual link between any act or omission by any of the defendants and his death.” Horne v. Beason, 285 S.C. 518, 522, 331 S.E.2d 342 (1985).

Decades before the opioid crisis, the South Carolina Supreme Court dealt with a wrongful death matter involving suicide. In that case, the plaintiff brought a wrongful death action against a pharmacy that sold the decedent barbiturates without a prescription and ultimately, as a result, the decedent committed suicide. Scott v. Greenville Pharmacy, 212 S.C. 485, 48 S.E.2d 324 (1948). The plaintiff alleged that the sale of those barbiturates proximately caused the decedent’s suicide. Id. at 485-86. Although the Scottcourt indicated that an exception for “uncontrollable impulse” may exist in South Carolina, it ultimately held that the unlawful sale of barbiturates could not bring about a condition of suicidal mania as a natural and probable consequence of the sale. Id. at 488. The court went further to state that although, in that case, it may be reasonably foreseeable that one becomes a drug addict, it is not reasonably foreseeable that the ultimate result would be suicide. Id. Many people use barbiturates, but not all of those people commit suicide. Id.

What happens if South Carolina decides to recognize that exception to suicide? What if an estate can sue for the decedent’s suicide on the basis of an “uncontrollable impulse”? Does this open the door to case after case of suicide by drug overdose?

A certified question is currently pending in the South Carolina Supreme Court directly asking the Court if this state recognizes or should recognize the uncontrollable impulse exception to the general rule that suicide breaks the causal chain of negligence. In that case, the District of South Carolina – Beaufort Division allowed a plaintiff’s case to proceed by ruling that this state does recognize the exception. The district court relied on Scottand a subsequent district court case, Watson v. Adams, to determine that the exception exists, although neither case applied the exception to the court’s decision. Subsequently, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff in Crystal L. Wickersham and Crystal L. Wickersham as Personal Representative of the Estate of John Harley Wickersham, Jr. v. Ford Motor Company for $4.65 million, which Ford Motor Company appealed to the Fourth Circuit on two bases – one of which being whether South Carolina recognizes an “uncontrollable impulse” exception to the general rule that suicide breaks the causal chain. The Fourth Circuit found that South Carolina does not have controlling authority on the issue, and both questions are now pending in front of the Court. 

In Wickersham, the decedent suffered from mental illness prior to the single-car accident that caused facial trauma and subsequent pain management as well as severe depression after the accident. Eighteen months after the car accident, the decedent committed suicide by ingesting methadone pills. His wife and estate filed negligence, strict liability, breach of warranty, and breach of implied warranty of merchantability claims against Ford Motor Company claiming a defective airbag system caused his injuries in the motor vehicle accident and ultimately caused him to take his own life. Although the decedent did not have a history of drug abuse, this case and the pending decision in the South Carolina Supreme Court may open the door to any type of suicide by overdose claim in this state. As any personal injury attorney knows, so many car accident claims involve pain management treatment and/or prescriptions for opioids throughout the treatment.

Should someone who may be “at fault” for a car accident now also be liable for the addictive qualities of the drugs prescribed to claimants during the course of their treatment? 

As an insurance defense attorney, my response to this question is a simple “no”. It is not foreseeable that a fender bender will lead to a drug overdose, but with the rise of addiction and opioid use, the South Carolina Supreme Court’s decision on the question of “uncontrollable impulse” may open the door to more wrongful death claims and higher demands in general negligence cases.

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