ATLANTA, Ga. (Supreme Court of Georgia) – In an 8-to-1 decision, the Supreme Court of Georgia has ruled in favor of a police officer sued by the mother of a 14-year-old girl who committed suicide after the officer showed his own daughter photographs from the girl’s earlier suicide attempt.
The high court has reversed a decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals which would have allowed the lawsuit against Sgt. Douglas Sahlberg and the Mayor and City of Richmond Hill to go to trial. With today’s decision, written by Justice Carol Hunstein, the Supreme Court has concluded that while Sahlberg’s disclosure of the photos was wrong and may have contributed to Sydney Sanders’s decision to kill herself, “under longstanding Georgia law, Sanders’s suicide acted as an intervening cause that extinguished any causal connection between Sahlberg’s wrongful conduct and Sanders’s death.”
On Feb. 14, 2011, Laura Lane Maia’s 14-year-old daughter, Sydney, attempted suicide by cutting her neck, chest and abdomen. According to briefs filed in the case, Lt. Dana Strickland and Sgt. Douglas Sahlberg, officers with the Richmond Hill Police Department in Bryan County, responded to the hospital call requesting they investigate because Sydney did not initially acknowledge that the wounds were self-inflicted. Strickland took four photos of Sydney’s injuries. While she was in the hospital, news of her suicide attempt spread at her high school. According to her boyfriend, “Everybody knew after a couple of days what happened.”
Later that month, Officer Sahlberg’s daughter, K.S., who attended school with Sydney, expressed concern to her father about why someone like Sydney would attempt suicide. Concerned that his daughter did not appreciate the finality of suicide and might actually copy Sydney by hurting herself, he logged into his password-protected work computer and showed K.S. the photos he had taken of Sydney’s injuries.
Sahlberg later testified that he did not print the photos for her, allow her to copy them or show them to anyone else. But one of Sydney’s classmates said that K.S. showed her and at least two other classmates photos of the injuries to Sydney’s breast and abdomen. When Sydney returned to school at the end of February, and learned that the photos of her had been shown among her classmates, she was “mortified” and “screaming and yelling and gasping for breath and crying,” her mother said.
On April 1, 2011, Lt. Strickland learned that Sahlberg had shown the photos to his daughter and that she in turn had told others about them. Strickland informed Sahlberg he’d violated department policy in disclosing the pictures, and he was subsequently disciplined for the infraction. On April 5, 2011, Sydney stated to her mother and her softball coach, Angie Hummeldorf, that “she didn’t want to be here anymore,” and wished her suicide attempt had been successful. Hummeldorf privately asked her why and Sydney expressed several frustrations, including that “those pictures are going around.” After the discussion, Hummeldorf told Sydney’s mother that the girl “wasn’t doing so good” and should not be left alone. Later that night, while Sydney was at home and her mother was still at work, mother and daughter talked by phone at 7:49 p.m.
Maia later said she was not concerned that Sydney was going to harm herself. When Maia returned home less than an hour later, she found her daughter had committed suicide by hanging herself.
In September 2014, Maia filed suit in Bryan County Superior Court against the Mayor and City of Richmond Hill, and against Sgt. Sahlberg in his individual and official capacities, seeking compensatory and punitive damages for wrongful death, intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy and for the girl’s pain and suffering.
In response, the City and Sahlberg filed a motion asking the court for “summary judgment” in their favor. (A trial court grants summary judgment upon deciding that a jury trial is unnecessary because the facts are undisputed and the law falls squarely on the side of one of the parties.)
In 2015, the trial court denied their motion, finding there remained questions of fact that should be determined by a jury. The City and Sahlberg appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which in March 2016 reversed the trial court’s denial of summary judgment on all of Maia’s claims except the wrongful death claim against the City, and the wrongful death, survival, and punitive damage claims against Sgt. Sahlberg. The majority concluded there was a question of fact whether Sahlberg’s actions were the “proximate cause” of Sydney’s suicide, which should be decided by a jury. (A proximate cause is one that directly produces an event and without which the event would not have occurred.)
Three judges dissented, writing that, “Maia may not recover for her wrongful-death and survival claims because, under well-established Georgia law, Sanders’ tragic suicide was an unforeseen intervening cause of her death, which absolves Sahlberg and the City from liability for such claims.” The City and Sahlberg then appealed to the state Supreme Court, which agreed to review the case to determine whether the Court of Appeals erred “by holding that suicide was not an intervening act that would preclude liability against a negligent tortfeasor.” (A “tortfeasor” is the alleged wrongdoer in a civil lawsuit – in this case, Sahlberg.)
In today’s opinion, “we conclude that [Maia] cannot demonstrate proximate cause and, therefore, reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals.”
“Because Georgia law generally deems suicide an unforeseeable intervening cause that breaks any causal connection between alleged negligent conduct and the resulting death, and, because the narrow exceptions to that rule do not apply here, we agree with Appellants [i.e. Sahlberg and City].”
There are two exceptions to the rule. The first, the “rage-or-frenzy exception,” applies when “the tortfeasor’s wrongful act causes the injured party to kill himself during a rage or frenzy, or in response to an uncontrollable impulse.” Here, “neither Sanders’s continued distress regarding the disclosure of the photos nor her subsequent ‘rampage’ wherein she ranted to her softball coach about the various stressors in her life, is sufficient to evidence that Sanders killed herself during a rage or frenzy, or in response to an uncontrollable impulse,” today’s opinion says. “In fact, the record indicates that Sanders’s final conversation with her mother was calm and rational. Accordingly this exception does not apply.”
The second exception applies when there is a “special relationship” between the wrongdoer and the person who kills herself in which the wrongdoer has a duty to protect the person from harm, such as in a doctor-patient relationship. “This special relationship may also exist between a police officer or jailer and his detainee or prisoner, because a duty to protect arises under such circumstances,” the opinion says. However, “At the time of the alleged negligent conduct and at the time of the subsequent suicide, Sahlberg had no ability to supervise Sanders, to make decisions about her healthcare, or to exercise custody or control over her,” the opinion says. “As such, the special-relationship exception does not apply here.”
In a special concurrence, Justice Harold Melton writes that he agrees with the majority’s bottom-line decision that Sahlberg and the City were entitled to summary judgment in their favor. But, “I write separately to express my concern that the majority may be making too much of the idea that a ‘special relationship’ did not exist between Sahlberg and Sanders simply because Sahlberg had no ability to supervise her or exercise control over her.”
“Indeed, Sahlberg did have some duty to Sanders based on police policies that prohibited him from revealing injury photos from Sanders’s attempted suicide to others.”
The one dissent in this case was from Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger of DeKalb County who sat by designation in place of Justice Nels Peterson. In his dissent, Judge Seeliger writes, “A jury should hear this case,” and states he would uphold the trial court’s decision denying summary judgment to Sahlberg and the City. Here, “a jury could find that Sahlberg should have known that if the pictures of Sanders’s self-inflicted wounds were disseminated that it was ‘probable’ that Sanders would again attempt suicide, especially given that she had attempted suicide just the previous month. The specific facts of this case should not be limited by the two exceptions set by prior precedent where a defendant knew of the previous attempted suicide and committed flagrant acts of negligence against a known policy of confidentiality within close proximity to the prior attempted suicide.”
Attorneys for Appellants (City): Patrick O’Connor, Benjamin Perkins, Lauren Meadows
Attorneys for Appellee (Maia): Billy Jones, Carl Varnedoe