83 Hawai'i 154, Lee v. Corregedore

Decision Date03 October 1996
Docket NumberNo. 17017,17017
Citation925 P.2d 324
Parties83 Hawai'i 154 Marilyn LEE, as Special Administratrix of the Estate of Anthony Wayne Perreira; Felicidad Perreira; and Antone G. Perreira, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Manuel CORREGEDORE; State of Hawai'i; John Does 1-10; and Doe Governmental Entities 11-20, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtHawaii Supreme Court

Eric A. Seitz, Honolulu, for plaintiffs-appellants.

Wesley F. Fong and James W. Laseter, Deputy Attorneys General, Honolulu, for defendants-appellees.

MOON, C.J., and KLEIN, LEVINSON, NAKAYAMA and RAMIL, JJ.

NAKAYAMA, Justice.

In this proceeding arising from Anthony Wayne Perreira's (Perreira) suicide, plaintiffs-appellants Marilyn Lee, as special administratrix of the decedent's estate, Felicidad Perreira, and Antone Perreira (collectively, Appellants) appeal from a summary judgment granted in favor of defendants-appellees Manuel Corregedore and the State of Hawai'i (collectively, Appellees), in a wrongful death action. On appeal, Appellants contend that the circuit court erred in concluding that Appellees did not have a duty to prevent Perreira's suicide. For the following reasons, we reject Appellants' contention and affirm the summary judgment.

I. BACKGROUND

Perreira was a disabled Vietnam veteran who suffered from neurological and psychiatric problems. He was under the care of a psychiatrist and social worker at the Veterans Administration Clinic on Kaua'i. Additionally, Perreira regularly received help from Manuel Corregedore (Corregedore), a Veterans' Services Counselor IV, at the State of Hawai'i's Office of Veterans' Services.

Prior to working for the Office of Veterans' Services, Corregedore had spent twenty-two years in the army. He had received an Associate of Arts degree in Liberal Arts from the University of Hawai'i. Corregedore had no training or license in psychiatry or psychology; however, he did receive some training in mental health and suicide prevention while in the military.

According to its official job description, the duties of a Veterans' Services Counselor IV included: identifying clients' needs and problems; referring them for services related to their needs and problems; and helping clients obtain education, employment and benefits for which they are eligible. 1 In an affidavit, Corregedore described his job duties as

making sure veterans receive all the benefits they are entitled to, coordinating with various agencies to procure the appropriate services, such as job training and educational programs and mental health services and counseling them regarding their day-to-day problems.... The counseling which I provide to veterans consists of identifying their concerns or problems, and explaining the options available to them to deal with the problem. The problems generally consist of housing, employment, financial, education or benefits matters.... I do not provide psychiatric or psychological services to the veterans I counsel. My counseling mainly consists of listening and empathizing with the veterans.... When confronted with a client with emotional or mental problems I always make arrangements for them to be seen by a mental health professional at the U.S. Veterans Center for evaluation and/or treatment.

Prior to their professional relationship, Perreira and Corregedore had known each other in a personal capacity since the 1960s. They had met each other through family connections and had accompanied each other to veterans' meetings and family gatherings. They had even taken a ten-day trip to Disneyland together. Perreira had also lived at Corregedore's home for a month.

Their professional relationship began when Perreira's mother approached Corregedore at the Office of Veterans' Services, seeking additional help for her son. Corregedore then initiated contact with Perreira by visiting Perreira at his house to assess which services he needed. The services that Corregedore ultimately provided included bill payments, a referral to a speech therapist, and informal visits where they would "talk story" and where Perreira would "let off steam." Corregedore also participated in discussions about establishing a guardianship for Perreira; however, the guardianship never came to fruition.

Perreira had threatened to commit suicide at least two times prior to his death. In 1990, Perreira threatened to commit suicide during a conference between Corregedore, Perreira, Perreira's father, Perreira's psychiatrist and Perreira's social worker. In March 1991, Perreira threatened to kill himself while he was at the police station being photographed and fingerprinted in connection with unspecified legal difficulties.

On the morning of July 19, 1991, Perreira called Corregedore at home to see if Corregedore would be at the Office of Veterans' Services that morning. Thereafter, Perreira and his father arrived at Corregedore's office at approximately 9:30 a.m. While waiting for Corregedore to finish with another client, Perreira told Corregedore's secretary, Jocelyn Miyake, that he was going to "jump Hanapepe Bay Valley, if not I'm going to Kokee." Perreira then asked Miyake to "write down what he wanted after he died." The document that Perreira dictated to Miyake stated:

7-19-91

Anthony Perreira's Request

All of his clothes to be given to the Salvation Army

Jewelry, Army Coat, and Camouflage Baseball Cap to be buried with him also Virgin Mary Statue.

All his money to be given to Parents.

TV. Bed to be left in his room.

[Signed]

Anthony W. Perreira

When Perreira saw Corregedore, he told Corregedore that he was going to kill himself at Hanapepe Bay Lookout. Corregedore told Perreira that he was going to call Perreira's social worker at the clinic and that they would all talk, but Perreira refused to listen and walked out of the office. As Perreira was leaving the office, Miyake showed Corregedore the document that Perreira had dictated to her. According to Corregedore, he showed the document to Perreira's father, told him about the suicide threat, and urged him "to keep an eye on [Perreira]." Conversely, Perreira's father later claimed that this brief conversation did not take place. After Perreira and his father left, Corregedore called Perreira's social worker, Gary Malinoski, and told him of Perreira's suicide threat; Malinoski said that he would follow up immediately, and did so, but it was too late to save Perreira. On his way home, Perreira asked his father to drive to Hanapepe Bay Lookout. When the pair arrived at the lookout, Perreira got out of the car and jumped to his death.

On February 10, 1992, Appellants filed a complaint for damages against Corregedore and the State. The complaint alleged that Corregedore had a duty arising from his professional relationship with Perreira to prevent Perreira from "causing and/or exposing himself to any serious injury and/or harm which was reasonably foreseeable," and that he breached this duty by failing to warn the father that Perreira was suicidal. A second allegation was that Corregedore had a "duty arising from [his] specific knowledge and information that ... Perreira stated he was going to kill himself to inform and/or warn his parents and/or other responsible persons or authorities of ... Perreira's statements and thereby prevent [the suicide]." Corregedore and the State answered the complaint on March 13, 1992, and filed a motion for summary judgment on September 10, 1992, alleging that Corregedore had no duty to prevent Perreira's suicide. The circuit court granted Corregedore and the State's motion for summary judgment on March 31, 1993, from which Appellants filed this appeal.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The issue in this case is whether the circuit court erred when it granted summary judgment in favor of Appellees on the basis that Corregedore owed no duty to prevent Perreira's suicide. We review the circuit court's award of summary judgment de novo under the same standard applied by the circuit court. Maguire v. Hilton Hotels Corp., 79 Hawai'i 110, 112, 899 P.2d 393, 395 (1995).

Summary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. A fact is material if proof of that fact would have the effect of establishing or refuting one of the essential elements of a cause of action or defense asserted by the parties.

Id. (citations, emphasis, and brackets omitted).

"The existence of duty ... is entirely a question of law." Birmingham v. Fodor's Travel Publications, 73 Haw. 359, 366, 833 P.2d 70, 74 (1992). This court reviews questions of law under the right/wrong standard. "Under the right/wrong standard, we examine the facts and answer the question without being required to give any weight to the trial court's answer to it." State v. Meyer, 78 Hawai'i 308, 311, 893 P.2d 159, 162 (1995) (citations omitted).

III. DISCUSSION

Appellants maintain that Appellees had a duty to prevent Perreira's suicide, and, although the analysis is sometimes unclear, Appellants appear to posit three theories. First, Appellants contend that the duty arises from a "special relationship" between Veterans' Services Counselors and their clients. Appellants argue that, "Corregedore's duty was the same as any mental health professional to his client," when a suicide was foreseeable. Appellants express their second theory by asserting that "Perreira's suicide was entirely foreseeable giving rise to a duty on the part of Appellee Corregedore," and thus, Appellants seem to assert that foreseeability alone is sufficient to create a duty on the part of counselors to prevent the suicides of their noncustodial clients. Third, Appellants "seek a ruling from the Court that recognizes the protected status of veterans, as a class, and determines that the lower court erred in finding that Mr....

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