Clift v. Narragansett Television L.P.

Decision Date23 December 1996
Docket NumberNo. 94-594-A,94-594-A
Citation688 A.2d 805
Parties25 Media L. Rep. 1417 Judith A. CLIFT et al. v. NARRAGANSETT TELEVISION L.P. ppeal.
CourtRhode Island Supreme Court
OPINION

BOURCIER, Justice.

This case comes before us on appeal from a final judgment of the Superior Court following summary judgment in favor of Narragansett Television, L.P.

I Facts and Travel

On the morning of May 17, 1993, a tragic series of events began to unfold. Early that morning, from his home in Chepachet in the town of Glocester, Bruce E. Clift (decedent) telephoned his wife, Judith A. Clift (Clift), who was at work to tell her that "it's over" and that he was going to commit suicide.

It appears that it was known that her husband was a mentally ill person, and so Clift left her workplace and returned home, which was to a small single family house on Route 44 in the town of Glocester. When she arrived, she saw her husband perched in an upstairs window. He had turned on a gas jet inside the house, intending thereby to carry out his previously announced intention to commit suicide. He was at that time also firing guns which he kept in the house. Clift tried unsuccessfully to convince her husband to put down his guns and to stop his self-destructive behavior and threats of suicide, but to no avail. Ignoring his wife's requests, he continued his threats of suicide and, in an apparent attempt to convince his wife of the sincerity of his threats, he then proceeded to cut his throat with a shard of glass from a broken window, causing blood to gush out. At that point, a police vehicle drove up to the house, causing him to become especially irate, whereupon he again began firing his weapons into the shrubbery surrounding the house as well as into the house ceilings. His wife, in fear, immediately exited the house and waited outside for further police assistance to arrive.

Within a short time thereafter, the Chepachet Police and the State Police surrounded the house and cordoned it off, setting up a police barrier. A State Police officer trained to deal with hostage situations was summoned to the scene, and he telephoned the decedent in an attempt to dissuade him from committing suicide. During the sensitive negotiation period that followed, an exponentially growing press contingency began to gather at the scene but was kept back from the house by the police barrier. Hours later, shortly after 5 p.m., an enterprising reporter from Narragansett Television, L.P. (Narragansett), doing business here in Rhode Island through its local television station, Channel 12, telephoned the Clift home. She did so without first having informed the police or the Clift family of her intentions, and she spoke to the decedent, who then agreed to a recorded telephone interview. The reporter told the decedent that the taped interview would be played later, sometime during the 6 p.m. television station news broadcast. At 6:04 p.m. the reporter, while still at the scene, appeared on the 6 p.m. news telecast and reported from the scene that,

"it's obvious we're dealing with a very troubled man right now. When I spoke to Bruce Clift on the telephone he sounded very disoriented. I asked him if he wanted us to broadcast a message for him. He agreed. What you're about to hear is a man who is angry at the world and could be on the verge of suicide. It's an interview you'll see only on Channel 12."

The telephone colloquy reported after that introduction was as follows:

"REPORTER: If your wife is watching right now, what would you say to your wife so she would understand?

"DECEDENT: Only that I love her, that anything she has done* * * I apologize 'cause I know it's my fault. Hey, you know, the whole nine yards, right. This is suicide.

"REPORTER: Do you realize what is going on outside your house?

"DECEDENT: Yeah, I know everything.

"REPORTER: And what do you think about this?

"DECEDENT: I really don't care what's going on outside my house.

"REPORTER: Are you scared?

"DECEDENT: I don't give a [beep inserted by Channel 12] if the National Guard comes out here.

"REPORTER: Did you mean to hold your wife hostage? Did you.

* * *

"DECEDENT: No, I don't want my wife hostage.

"REPORTER: Did you want to harm her in any way?

"DECEDENT: No.

"REPORTER: Did you harm her in any way?

"DECEDENT: No.

"REPORTER: Are you sick? Do you have some kind of sickness?

"DECEDENT: No, I don't want no help no more. I'm done trying to play help.

"REPORTER: Are you going to give yourself up sir and try to work.

"DECEDENT: No, I'm not giving myself up anywhere. This is it. This is the final stand.

"REPORTER: Mr. Clift told me he would not surrender, and after he made that very clear to me, he hung up the 'phone.' "

The decedent carried out his previous suicide threats at approximately 6:07 p.m. The police immediately entered the Clift home, and noted that the television sets in the home were operating and were tuned to Channel 12, the channel that had just previously broadcast the exclusive report of the reporter's telephone call to the decedent.

On February 14, 1994, Clift, as administratrix of her husband's estate; for herself, as a surviving widow; and as surviving parent of decedent's three minor children, commenced a civil action against the defendant, Narragansett. In her complaint, as finally amended on March 1, 1994, she alleged nine causes of action, which were designated therein as "negligence," "wilful, wanton misconduct," "intentional tort of trespass," "right of privacy," "negligent infliction of emotional distress," "intentional infliction of emotional distress," "violation of wrongful death statutes," "loss of consortium," and "loss of companionship."

Narragansett responded to Clift's complaint by motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure, asserting therein a failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Clift's objection and response to that motion was supported by the affidavit of Stanley Cath, M.D. (Dr. Cath), a Massachusetts psychoanalyst retained for purposes of litigation by Clift. Narragansett's motion was then, because of that affidavit, treated by the hearing justice as a motion for summary judgment. 1 After hearing thereon, the hearing justice rendered a written decision on September 21, 1994 in which she granted Narragansett's motion. On September 29, 1994, final judgment was entered dismissing Clift's complaint. This appeal followed.

II

Negligence

Blackstone describes suicide as

"Self-Murder, the pretended heroism, but real cowardice, of the stoic philosophers, who destroyed themselves to avoid those ills which they had not the fortitude to endure, though the attempting it seems to be countenanced by the civil law, yet was punished by the Athenian law * * *. And also the law of England wisely and religiously considers, that no man hath a power to destroy life, but by commission from God, the author of it: and, as the suicide is guilty of a double offense; one spiritual, in invading the prerogative of the Almighty, and rushing into his immediate presence uncalled for; the other temporal, against the king, who hath an interest in the preservation of all his subjects; the law has therefore ranked this among the highest crimes, making it a peculiar species of felony, a felony committed on one's self. * * * The law very rationally judges, that every melancholy or hypochondriac fit does not deprive a man of the capacity of discerning right from wrong; which is necessary, as was observed in a former chapter, to form a legal excuse. And therefore if a real lunatic kills himself in a lucid interval, he is a felo de se as much as another man." Tate v. Canonica, 180 Cal.App.2d 898, 5 Cal.Rptr. 28, 31-32 (1960) (quoting 4 Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, ch. 14 at 189 (8th ed. 1778)).

Rhode Island, a common law state, also considers suicide a felony. In re Marlene B., 540 A.2d 1028 (R.I.1988).

The first civil action cases in this country involving suicide claims allegedly resulting from a defendant's negligent act were strongly influenced by the common law classification of suicide as a felony. As a result, the courts in those earlier cases found that the act of suicide normally terminated all civil liability of a defendant. The judicial reasoning was that suicide, being a criminal act, was typically not the foreseeable result of any alleged negligence. See Scheffer v. Railroad Co., 105 U.S. (15 Otto) 249, 26 L.Ed. 1070 (1881). From this early restricted view there emerged, however, a line of cases that came to recognize a right of recovery in certain limited factual instances.

The new rule that developed in those cases was that the act of suicide could permit a civil action for damages but only if the particular suicide was the

"result of an uncontrollable impulse, or is accomplished in delirium or frenzy caused by the * * * [defendant's negligent act], and without conscious volition to produce death, having knowledge of the physical nature and consequences of the act. An act of suicide resulting from a moderately intelligent power of choice, even though the choice is determined by a disordered mind, should be deemed a new and independent, efficient cause of the death that immediately ensues." Bogust v. Iverson, 10 Wis.2d 129, 102 N.W.2d 228, 232 (1960)(quoting Daniels v. New York N.H. & H.R. R., 183 Mass. 393, 67 N.E. 424 (1903)).

See also Brown v. American Steel and Wire Co., 43 Ind.App. 560, 88 N.E. 80 (1909); Freyermuth v. Lutfy, 376 Mass. 612, 382 N.E.2d 1059 (1978); Cauverien v. De Metz, 20 Misc.2d 144, 188 N.Y.S.2d 627 (N.Y.Sup.1959); Falkenstein v. City of Bismarck, 268 N.W.2d 787 (N.D.1978). The Daniels rule relied upon in Bogust later emerged in the Restatement (Second) Torts, § 455 (1965) which states:

"If the actor's negligent conduct so brings about the delirium or insanity of another...

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