Cotten v. Wilson

Decision Date19 June 2019
Docket NumberNo. M2016-02402-SC-R11-CV,M2016-02402-SC-R11-CV
Citation576 S.W.3d 626
Parties Benjamin Shea COTTEN, as Personal Representative for the Estate of Christina Marie Cotten, Deceased, et al. v. Jerry Scott WILSON
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

Holly Kirby, J.

In this wrongful death action, the plaintiff estate seeks to hold the defendant liable for negligently facilitating the decedent’s suicide. While staying alone in the defendant’s home, the adult decedent committed suicide by shooting herself with a gun that was unsecured in the defendant’s home. The decedent’s estate sued the defendant, alleging that he should have known the decedent was potentially suicidal and that he negligently facilitated the suicide by failing to secure the gun while the decedent was in his home. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, and the Court of Appeals reversed. We hold that the evidence is insufficient for a trier of fact to find that the decedent’s suicide was a reasonably foreseeable probability; consequently, the decedent’s suicide constitutes a superseding intervening event that breaks the chain of proximate causation. Accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeals and affirm the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant.


Benjamin Shea Cotten and the decedent, Christina Marie Cotten ("Christina"),3 were married in 2006. Together they had a son in 2010.

Later in 2010, Christina became a registered nurse and began working as a psychiatric nurse in the Military Unit at Skyline Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. While working at Skyline, she met Defendant/Appellant Dr. Jerry Scott Wilson ("the Defendant"), a board-certified psychiatrist. The Defendant was the director of the Military Unit in which Christina worked. In May 2011, Christina and the Defendant began an affair.

After Mr. Cotten discovered that Christina was having an affair with the Defendant, Mr. Cotten and Christina separated. Eventually, the affair led to the demise of their marriage. In June 2012, Christina’s divorce from Mr. Cotten was finalized. The divorce decree provided for Christina and Mr. Cotten to exercise equal parenting time with their son.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Christina and the Defendant continued. In October 2013, Christina was evicted from the place where she was living for failure to pay rent. She then moved into the Defendant’s home in Nashville.

Subsequently, the Defendant noticed that Christina was having frequent crying spells and seemed to be struggling with eviction, job loss, and her new job not working out. She was not as energetic and motivated as she once was, and on certain days she did not take care of herself.

In late 2013, Christina informed the Defendant that she had sought treatment for depression and anxiety from Dr. Roy Asta, a psychiatrist who had worked with both the Defendant and Christina at Skyline Hospital. Christina visited Dr. Asta twice in 2013, once in March and once in June. The Defendant knew Christina was taking Prozac and Klonopin at the end of 2013.

In early 2014, the Defendant was making plans to move into a new house in Franklin, Tennessee; Christina intended to move to Franklin with him. On January 23, 2014, Mr. Cotten filed a petition in state court for primary custody of his son because of Christina’s plan to move to Franklin.

A few days after Mr. Cotten’s petition was filed, on the evening of January 26, 2014, Christina’s friends4 took her to the emergency room of Metro Nashville General Hospital based on Christina’s overdose of Ativan and the consumption of nearly a full bottle of wine.5 Lab reports confirmed that Christina had both alcohol and benzodiazepines in her system. Christina was diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder, acute alcohol intoxication, and medication overdose. Although Christina initially denied that she was attempting to commit suicide, the attending physician was of the opinion that Christina had attempted suicide and was a suicide risk. Consequently, Christina was moved to Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute (MHI), a state funded psychiatric hospital, for inpatient psychiatric treatment and further evaluation and monitoring.

After arriving at MHI, Christina was evaluated by Dr. Philip Brooks, a psychiatrist. He found her to be somewhat embarrassed and distraught. Christina called the Defendant and told him that she was being admitted to MHI. She denied that she had tried to commit suicide and explained to the Defendant that she had passed out from drinking and taking a couple of extra sleeping pills. The Defendant then spoke on the telephone with Dr. Brooks. The MHI medical records contain the following note: "[Medical Officer of the Day] spoke[ ] with boyfriend (Dr. Jerry Wilson), and boyfriend assured her safety especially since they lived together. Patient will see her Outpatient Psychiatrist within seven days." It was Dr. Brooks' understanding that the Defendant would pick Christina up and take her home with him. The Defendant assured Dr. Brooks that Christina would follow up with her outpatient psychiatrist within the allotted seven days.6 Dr. Brooks then told Christina that she was being released on the condition that she would follow up with her psychiatrist. One reason Dr. Brooks decided to discharge Christina was that he knew she was going home with the Defendant; the fact that the Defendant promised that Christina would follow up with an outpatient psychiatrist had a huge bearing on Dr. Brooks' decision to send Christina home.

Neither the Defendant nor Dr. Brooks informed Dr. Asta of Christina’s suicide attempt. Although Christina had initially denied that she attempted suicide, she later admitted to the Defendant that she actually had been contemplating suicide at the time of her January 2014 hospitalization.

In February 2014, Christina and the Defendant moved to the Defendant’s new house in Franklin. In April 2014, Mr. Cotten’s petition for majority parenting time was granted.7

In June 2014, the Defendant noticed that Christina was having frequent crying spells because of the loss of equal parenting time with her son. The crying spells were varied, usually once or twice a week. She wanted to sleep a lot and she ruminated on the loss of parenting time; Christina’s depression was extremely variable.

Around that same time period in June 2014, over a year after her previous visit, Christina went to Dr. Asta for treatment for the first time since her suicide attempt. She was doing poorly and was in distress and crying. He continued her on the same treatment and increased some medication.

Prior to mid-August 2014, the Defendant had told Christina that he no longer trusted her and did not feel he would ever be able to regain trust in her. He told her she was not making good decisions and was constantly putting their families in jeopardy. In mid-August 2014, the Defendant broke up with Christina; he told her that he did not see a future for their relationship and that it was "time to move on." He helped Christina pack her things, and she moved out of his home. Christina was upset about the break-up. However, the two still had an off-and-on relationship. They talked, texted, emailed, had physical relations, and occasionally talked about reconciling. During the months after the break-up, Christina spent the night with the Defendant five or six times.

Meanwhile, on August 29, 2014, Christina visited Dr. Asta again. She reported to him that she had broken up with her boyfriend, whom Dr. Asta knew to be the Defendant. She described the relationship as "being rocky." Dr. Asta noted that Christina was doing well on that occasion.

On October 14, 2014, Christina made her last contact with Dr. Asta. She called him for refills of her medication, and she told Dr. Asta she was planning to move back in with the Defendant. Dr. Asta recorded in his notes that he specifically asked Christina whether she had suicidal ideations, and she said that she had none. When asked whether he ever questioned Christina’s truthfulness, Dr. Asta said he did not because Christina "seemed pretty reliable." Christina never told Dr. Asta about her January 2014 suicide attempt, and he did not learn about it until after her death. Dr. Asta never contacted the Defendant to discuss his (the Defendant’s) relationship with Christina.

In October 2014, the Defendant’s father gave him an old 32 revolver handgun and some ammunition for protection.8 The Defendant stored the gun and ammunition in a china cabinet buffet in his dining room area; the gun was concealed in a sock in one drawer, and the ammunition was concealed in a sock in a different drawer.

On October 26, 2014, the Defendant, Christina, and Christina’s son went out to lunch and then returned to the Defendant’s house. While Christina and her son were in the den, the Defendant retrieved the handgun from the china cabinet and took it to the den to show it to Christina and her son.9 The Defendant told Christina it was referred to as a lady’s purse gun and told her a little history. He also told Christina the reason he had the gun was that he was concerned for his own safety. He explained that he had been assaulted before, and he also said that he was concerned about the chaotic relationship between Christina and Mr. Cotten. Christina handled the gun. Afterwards, the Defendant took the gun back to the china cabinet. The gun was out of the china cabinet for ten to fifteen minutes. Although the undisputed evidence shows that the dining room was adjacent to the den, it is unclear whether Christina saw where the Defendant kept the gun at that time.10

Later that same evening, the Defendant told Christina he was interested in pursuing a relationship with another woman. He did this because Christina had brought some things to his house for Halloween and he felt that Christina was "trying to nest again." Christina became upset and accused the Defendant of "just...

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24 cases
  • Kim v. State
    • United States
    • Tennessee Court of Appeals
    • October 30, 2020
    ... ... See, e.g. , Cotten v. Wilson , 576 S.W.3d 626, 638 (Tenn. 2019) (utilizing the McClenahan three-part test); King v. Anderson Cnty. , 419 S.W.3d 232, 247 (Tenn ... ...
  • Vaughn v. DMC-Memphis, LLC
    • United States
    • Tennessee Court of Appeals
    • January 27, 2021
    ... ... Loudon Cty ... , 199 S.W.3d 239 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005) (involving an inmate who slipped and fell on his way to a restroom); Heggs v ... Wilson Inn Nashville-Elm Hill , Inc ... , No. M2003-00919-COA-R3-CV, 2005 WL 2051287 (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 25, 2005) (involving a slip and fall on water in a ... 2015), this Court is still required to view the undisputed facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Cotten v ... Wilson , 576 S.W.3d 626, 637 (Tenn. 2019) (citing Rye , 477 S.W.3d at 286). It was therefore not the trial court's prerogative to deem Ms ... ...
  • Jernigan v. Paasche
    • United States
    • Tennessee Court of Appeals
    • June 21, 2021
    ... ... Jernigan has conflated the concepts of legal causation and the cause in fact of Decedent's damages, see Cotten v. Wilson , 576 S.W.3d 626, 638 (Tenn. 2019), with the medical cause of Decedent's ailment. As our Supreme Court has explained: Cause-in-fact, ... ...
  • Davis v. Ellis
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    • Tennessee Court of Appeals
    • November 5, 2020
    ... ... Dimick , 213 S.W.3d 865, 882 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2006). White v ... Premier Med ... Grp ... , 254 S.W.3d 411, 417 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2007); see also Cotten v ... Wilson , 576 S.W.3d 626, 639 (Tenn. 2019) (citations omitted); Borne v ... Celadon Trucking Servs ... , Inc ... , 532 S.W.3d 274, 299 (Tenn. 2017) ... ...
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