Bruzga v. PMR Architects, P.C.

Decision Date21 April 1997
Docket NumberNo. 95-502,95-502
Citation141 N.H. 756,693 A.2d 401
PartiesMichael W. BRUZGA, Administrator of the Estate of Richard C. Bruzga v. PMR ARCHITECTS, P.C. n/f/k/a Page/Michaelis Associates and another.
CourtNew Hampshire Supreme Court

McDowell & Mekeel, P.A., Manchester (Richard J. Walsh, on the brief and orally, and Mark D. Morrissette, on the brief), for plaintiff.

Burns & Levinson, Boston, MA(David J. Hatem, on the brief, and Jeffrey L. Alitz, orally), for defendant PMR Architects, P.C. n/f/k/a Page/Michaelis Associates.

Law Office of Robert L. Hermann, Jr., Manchester (Mary Anne Mueller, on the brief, and David Woodbury, Dover, orally), for defendant Capitol Fire Protection Co., Inc.

THAYER, Justice.

The plaintiff, Michael W. Bruzga, administrator of the estate of Richard C. Bruzga, appeals an order of the Superior Court (McGuire, J.) granting the defendants' motions to dismiss. According to the trial court, the plaintiff failed to allege facts sufficient to show that the defendants fall within a recognized exception to the general rule of nonliability for the suicide of another. We affirm.

The plaintiff alleged the following facts. The decedent, Richard C. Bruzga, was an inmate in the Secure Psychiatric Unit located at the New Hampshire State Prison. Defendant PMR Architects, P.C. n/f/k/a Page/Michaelis Associates (PMR), was responsible for designing the Secure Psychiatric Unit and for supervising its construction. Capitol Fire, Inc. (Capitol Fire) installed the unit's sprinkler system.

On March 14, 1990, the decedent committed suicide by hanging himself with shoelaces he had attached to the sprinkler nozzle in his cell. The plaintiff alleged that the defendants were fully aware that they were designing and constructing the Secure Psychiatric Unit for mentally disturbed individuals who might attempt to harm themselves or others. The plaintiff sought damages under negligence and strict liability theories.

"On an appeal from an order granting a motion to dismiss, the only issue raised is whether the allegations are reasonably susceptible of a construction that would permit recovery." Collectramatic, Inc. v. Kentucky Fried Chicken Corp., 127 N.H. 318, 320, 499 A.2d 999, 1000 (1985) (quotation omitted). When ruling upon a motion to dismiss, "we assume the truth of the plaintiff's allegations of fact and construe all reasonable inferences therefrom in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Williams v. O'Brien, 140 N.H. 595, 600, 669 A.2d 810, 813 (1995).

I. Negligence

"As a general rule, negligence actions seeking damages for the suicide of another will not lie because the act of suicide is considered a deliberate, intentional and intervening act which precludes a finding that a given defendant, in fact, is responsible for the harm." McLaughlin v. Sullivan, 123 N.H. 335, 337, 461 A.2d 123, 124 (1983). This is because the act of suicide "breaks the causal connection between the wrongful or negligent act and the death." Mayer v. Town of Hampton, 127 N.H. 81, 84, 497 A.2d 1206, 1209 (1985). A number of jurisdictions, however, have delineated two exceptions to the general rule. Id.

"The first exception recognizes a cause of action where the defendant actually causes the suicide." Murdock v. City of Keene, 137 N.H. 70, 72, 623 A.2d 755, 756 (1993). We adopted the first exception in Mayer, 127 N.H. at 87, 497 A.2d at 1210-11. A defendant may be found liable "where the conduct of the defendant was an intentional tort and extreme and outrageous, and where this conduct caused severe emotional distress on the part of the victim which was a substantial factor in bringing about the victim's ensuing suicide." Id. at 88, 497 A.2d at 1211. This exception does not apply in this case.

The second exception recognizes a cause of action where the defendant has "a specific duty of care to prevent suicide," arising from the defendant's "special relationship with the suicidal individual." McLaughlin, 123 N.H. at 338, 461 A.2d at 125; see Murdock, 137 N.H. at 73, 623 A.2d at 756. In McLaughlin, we stated:

[T]his duty has been imposed on: (1) institutions such as jails, hospitals and reform schools, having actual physical custody of and control over persons; and (2) persons or institutions such as mental hospitals, psychiatrists and other mental-health trained professionals, deemed to have a special training and expertise enabling them to detect mental illness and/or the potential for suicide, and which have the power or control necessary to prevent that suicide.

McLaughlin, 123 N.H. at 338, 461 A.2d at 125 (citations omitted). Even if we were to adopt the second exception, we hold that the defendants did not have the requisite special relationship with the decedent to create a specific duty of care to prevent his suicide.

Fundamental to the second exception is a pre-existing duty of care and protection imposed on defendants either because they have "actual physical custody of, and substantial or total control over, an individual," id. at 340, 461 A.2d at 126, or because the defendants are "specially trained medical or mental health professional[s], who ha[ve] the precise duty and the control necessary to care for the physical and/or mental well-being of a patient," id. In this case, neither PMR nor Capitol Fire had actual physical custody of the decedent. They did not have substantial or total control over the decedent. They did not have special medical or mental health care training. PMR and Capitol Fire were in the business of designing and constructing buildings, not providing mental health care for suicidal individuals. See generally Tittle v. Giattina, Fisher & Co., 597 So.2d 679, 681 (Ala.1992). Thus, neither PMR nor Capitol Fire is similar to the typical defendants who have been found liable under the second exception. See McLaughlin, 123 N.H. at 338, 461 A.2d at 125.

We refuse to extend suicide liability to architects, contractors, engineers, and a vast array of other parties involved with the design and construction of buildings. We are familiar with only one jurisdiction in which a court has held a building contractor liable for the suicide of another. See Honey v. Barnes Hosp., 708 S.W.2d 686, 700 (Mo.Ct.App.1986). Most jurisdictions are reluctant to impose liability for suicide even upon defendants who had custodial control over the suicidal individual. See Pretty On Top v. City of Hardin, 182 Mont. 311, 597 P.2d 58 (1979); City of Belen v. Harrell, 93 N.M. 601, 603 P.2d 711 (1979); Johnson v. Grant Hospital, 32 Ohio St.2d 169, 291 N.E.2d 440 (1972); Note, Custodial Suicide Cases: An Analytical Approach to Determine Liability For Wrongful Death, 62 B.U.L.Rev. 177, 177-78 (1982).

While we recognize that architects and contractors have a duty to design and construct safe structures, see La Bombarbe v. Phillips Swager Assoc., 130 Ill.App.3d 896, 86 Ill.Dec. 28, 31, 474 N.E.2d 942, 945 (1985), this duty is not limitless. Architects and contractors should not be exposed to endless suicide liability when they have relinquished their authority and control over the facility to the owner. See Easterday v. Masiello, 518 So.2d 260, 261-62 (Fla.1988) (architects and engineers of jail containing patent defect, on which inmate committed suicide by hanging, were relieved of liability after control turned over to jail owner). Additionally, architects and contractors do not have a duty to make prison cells suicide-proof. See Tittle, 597 So.2d at 681.

Even for intentional torts under the first exception, the tortfeasor's conduct must be extreme and outrageous in order to support a cause of action. Mayer, 127 N.H. at 87, 497 A.2d at 1211. It would be inconsistent to now permit a cause of action for mere negligence when the defendants' conduct was no more than a failure to prevent suicide, absent a special relationship with the decedent. Murdock, 137 N.H. at 73, 623 A.2d at 756. The special relationship exception is a narrow circumstance available only if the primary purpose of the institution or medical professional is to care for the individual suffering from mental illness. See McLaughlin, 123 N.H. at 338, 461 A.2d at 125. We must take care not to equate special relationship with any relationship. Permitting ordinary negligence claims for suicide would lead to inconsistencies in our suicide tort law.

Extending liability in this case would also transform our general rule of nonliability for the suicide of another into the exception. As we noted in Libbey v. Hampton Water Works Co., 118 N.H. 500, 389 A.2d 434 (1978), "duty ... is an exceedingly artificial concept. If a court wishes to impose liability, it can easily find the necessary 'relationship' between the parties to create the duty," id. Imposing liability in the instant case would encourage a proliferation of attenuated claims in suicide litigation and discourage firms from contracting with the State to design and construct mental health related facilities. See McLaughlin, 123 N.H. at 342, 461 A.2d at 127.

Our holding today acknowledges the difficulty in preventing suicide. See Broussard v. State Through Div. of Hosps., 356 So.2d 94, 96 (La.Ct.App.), writ denied, 358 So.2d 639 (La.1978); Tittle, 597 So.2d at 681; La Bombarbe, 86 Ill.Dec. at 31, 474 N.E.2d at 945. As the court explained in Tittle, there are countless ways that inmates and patients commit suicide, including, "cutting wrists or other body parts, drowning, electrocution, swallowing a razor blade, and a stab to the stomach." 597 So.2d at 681. The Tittle court rejected a negligence claim against an architectural firm for the suicide of an inmate in a county jail it designed, stating, "it cannot be said in this case that the architect's design was 'closely connected' to the suicide." Id. At most, the architect's design merely "allowed one form of suicide to be committed rather than another." Id.

In La Bombarbe, the court also refused to recognize a claim against an architect for suicide,...

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