Young v. Guild, No. 2004-CA-02532-SCT (Miss. 10/30/2008)

Decision Date30 October 2008
Docket NumberNo. 2004-CA-02532-SCT.,2004-CA-02532-SCT.
PartiesCANDICE YOUNG, PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE WRONGFUL DEATH BENEFICIARIES OF CHERIE S. HANCOCK, DECEASED, v. DONALD C. GUILD, M.D.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

¶ 1. In this wrongful death suicide case, the Court must consider several evidentiary issues and determine whether the trial court properly instructed the jury. The Court must also consider whether the Irresistible Impulse Doctrine bars recovery when the wrongful death beneficiaries have alleged medical malpractice. Finding error, we reverse and remand for a new trial.

FACTS

¶ 2. Jim Herring, Cherie S. Hancock's divorce attorney, referred his client to Donald Guild, M.D., a psychiatrist, for a mental evaluation and medical treatment. Herring wanted Dr. Guild's expert opinion for a divorce proceeding that involved Hancock and her husband, George Thomas Hancock. Hancock's mental state was at issue in the proceeding.

¶ 3. Dr. Guild first met with Hancock on August 7, 1999. Hancock informed Dr. Guild that during the 1990s her relationship with her husband and children had deteriorated; she had suffered a miscarriage; and she previously had shot herself in the chest, attempting to commit suicide. Hancock visited Dr. Guild's office again on August 16, 1999. Dr. Guild began to treat Hancock on an inpatient basis at St. Dominic Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi, on August 20, 1999.

¶ 4. On September 15, 1999, Dr. Guild testified at Hancock's divorce hearing. When asked the question, "[D]o you have an opinion as to what her condition would be if she is not allowed to move back into [her] house and have free reign?", Dr. Guild responded:

I really just don't want to think about that. I don't think it will be good at all. I hope she would make it, but we have to find another place for her to live. It won't be permanent. It will be a temporary place. And for anybody else, for most other people, they could look ahead and see the fact that they're going to come out all right. But I'm afraid she can't do that. With her depression and everything, it's going to be clouded, she's going to be hopeless. I'm afraid she will take her life.

¶ 5. Dr. Guild was also asked how long he thought Hancock would need to be hospitalized. Dr. Guild responded, "I think I could put her back into the house in two days. I would feel comfortable doing that. If she goes someplace else I just wouldn't estimate." Further, when asked how life threatening it would be, in Dr. Guild's opinion, for Hancock not to be allowed to go back to her house, Dr. Guild responded:

I can't put a figure on it. I can't put anything [sic], but I couldn't recommend it. I'm here today because I'm very fearful there is a good chance that if she doesn't have that situation, she won't be here and the need for a divorce won't be before the court.

Dr. Guild discharged Hancock from the hospital on Friday, September 17, 1999.

¶ 6. Dr. Guild formulated a discharge plan for Hancock, which provided that she live with her mother and stepfather. According to the plan, Hancock was to be "with someone at all times if possible . . . . [and] [i]f there was anything unusual . . . [her mother and step-father] were to let [Dr. Guild] know." Hancock's parents were supposed to make sure that she took her medications and met with Dr. Guild on an outpatient basis. Dr. Guild did not speak with Hancock's parents regarding the discharge plan, but he delegated that task to a social worker and Herring. Hancock committed suicide on September 20, 1999, three days after her release from St. Dominic Hospital.

¶ 7. As part of its investigation of Hancock's suicide, the Yazoo County Sheriff's Department discovered various suicide notes at the suicide scene and Hancock's mother's house. Throughout the notes, Hancock blamed her husband for her impending suicide, and she assigned her possessions to various family members. Hancock also left a note telling her children how much she loved them.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

¶ 8. On September 14, 2001, Candice Young, individually and as personal representative of the wrongful death beneficiaries of Hancock, filed a complaint against Dr. Guild. Young alleged that Hancock was under the care and treatment of Dr. Guild from August 6, 1999, until her death on September 20, 1999. Young specifically alleged that Dr. Guild directly and proximately caused Hancock's death by his negligence in: (1) failing to meet his duty of care in treating Hancock; (2) failing to adequately assess and screen Hancock as a suicide risk prior to releasing her from the hospital; and (3) failing to take reasonable steps to eliminate or mitigate situational factors of which he was aware that constituted a danger to Hancock and enhanced her ability to take her own life.

¶ 9. Dr. Guild filed an Answer on October 18, 2001. He admitted that he had provided treatment to Hancock prior to her death and that Hancock had taken her life by firearm on September 20, 1999. Dr. Guild affirmatively pleaded Section 85-5-7 of the Mississippi Code Annotated and the doctrine of illegality.

¶ 10. During discovery, Dr. Guild's counsel repeatedly attempted to depose Herring and eventually filed a Motion to Compel the deposition. In Plaintiff's Response to Defendant's Motion to Compel, Young asserted the attorney-client privilege and the work product doctrine on behalf of the deceased Hancock. Thereafter, the trial court denied the Motion to Compel Herring's deposition by Order filed April 5, 2004. The Order did not contain any grounds for the denial, and the transcript of the hearing could not be located.

¶ 11. Dr. Guild also filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, contending that suicide was a common law criminal act, and therefore, the illegality defense barred Young's claims against Dr. Guild. Further, Dr. Guild argued that since suicide is generally a superceding cause precluding liability, Young was required to show that her case qualified for the exception recognized in Mississippi, the Irresistible Impulse Doctrine. Dr. Guild averred that Young failed to show that Dr. Guild committed an intentional tort which caused an irresistible impulse in the decedent to commit suicide. Dr. Guild also argued that the suicide notes found by the Yazoo County Sheriff's Department demonstrated that Hancock understood the consequences of shooting herself; thus, her acts were volitional and not compensable.

¶ 12. Young responded that the defense of superceding cause is inapplicable in cases based upon the doctor/patient relationship. Young argued the jury should determine whether the suicide was foreseeable and judge the reasonableness of Dr. Guild's actions. Young asserted that there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether Dr. Guild took reasonable steps to prevent Hancock's suicide.

¶ 13. The trial court denied the motion for summary judgment without explanation on April 5, 2004. A jury trial was conducted August 17-19, 2004. Young called six witnesses, including Dr. Guild as an adverse witness. Dr. Guild was questioned about whether he performed a suicide risk assessment and prepared a discharge plan.

¶ 14. Young also called Dr. Raymond F. Patterson to testify as a forensic psychiatry expert. Patterson testified that Dr. Guild violated the standard of care by failing to perform a proper suicide risk assessment. Patterson opined that Dr. Guild discharged Hancock prematurely. Patterson also testified that Dr. Guild had an inadequate discharge plan to assist Hancock's survival in the community at the time of discharge. Patterson testified that Dr. Guild violated the standard of care in implementing the discharge plan when Dr. Guild failed to speak directly with Hancock's mother and stepfather prior to her discharge.

¶ 15. Dr. Guild called four witnesses. Donna Carey Pigg, Hancock's best friend, identified handwritten letters sent to her by Hancock. Pigg also testified about Hancock's interaction with her family. Dr. Guild essentially testified that he had met the standard of care regarding his treatment of Hancock. Willie Bell Hood, the deputy clerk at the Yazoo County Sheriff's Department, provided testimony about a fax the Department sent to Dr. Guild's counsel. Hood verified the date on the cover sheet as her handwriting, but she could not identify the papers in the file as those she faxed or attest who placed the papers in the file. Last, Dr. Sandra Holly testified as an expert in the field of psychiatry that Dr. Guild had met the standard of care in his treatment of Hancock.

¶ 16. At trial, Dr. Guild's counsel made this offer of proof regarding the testimony of Herring:

[W]e would expect him to testify consistent with the — testify with regard to Ms. Hancock's state of mind regarding how she was being treated and the effect it had on her, with regard to her discharge situation that she wanted to be — wanted to go to her mama's home, she didn't want to stay in the hospital. He talked to Dr. Guild, and he also thought it was the right thing to do. She was not suicidal. Those would be the two main things, although we would also expect him to confirm various discussions he had with Dr. Guild that's been testified to by Dr. Guild.

¶ 17. After the offer of proof, the trial court denied any testimony from Herring. Because the court denied the testimony, Dr. Guild requested the court give a negative inference instruction to the jury. The court refused the instruction without comment.

¶ 18. The jury returned a verdict for Dr. Guild on August 24, 2004. A final judgment was entered by the trial court on August 26,...

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