If 2019 stays on trend more than 47-thousand Americans will kill themselves this year. Their loved ones will, understandably, be consumed with grief over the suicide. But some of them will then go on to try to affix outside blame for the death. Many of them will hire a lawyer and file a wrongful death lawsuit against a person, company, school or, maybe, even a structure that, in the minds of the family, failed to protect their suicidal loved one.
But is any living person or thing really to blame for someone’s suicide? A judge in New York has just said no.
Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Arlene Bluth recently ruled on a pair of cases filed by the grieving relatives of a 24-year-old female jazz musician and a prominent 49-year-old male architect who, on separate occasions, jumped to their deaths from the George Washington Bridge in the summer of 2017. Court papers referred to the 600-foot-high bridge over the Hudson River connecting New York and New Jersey as a “suicide magnet” and both multimillion-dollar lawsuits blamed the Port Authority (which oversees bridge operations) for not doing enough to stop despondent jumpers. Judge Bluth didn’t buy it.
“They cannot be held liable because someone makes the tragic decision to take his own life,” the judge wrote in her decision dismissing the wrongful death suits.
“Most property owners have no idea about the mental state of the people who traverse their properties,” the judge added, and therefore those responsible for the property should not be required to “assess the ways people might attempt to commit suicide” and take preemptory precautions.
Suicide has become a heartbreaking fact of American life. The National Institute for Mental Health reports it is among the leading causes of death. It is the second leading killer of those between 10 and 34. But white middle-aged men take their own lives at a higher rate than any other category with 7 out of 10 suicides attributed to that group. Annually, there are more suicides in the U.S. than fatal traffic accidents, more than breast cancer deaths and more than double the number of murders. In 2017, 1.3 million Americans attempted to kill themselves but were somehow saved.
Studying why and how the hopeless decide to end their lives isn’t just a macabre exercise, it is mandatory if we ever hope to curb this awful upward trend. But it is a complicated endeavor.
Younger people are succumbing to relentless bullying from peers and turning to suicide at an alarming rate. There are countless wrongful death lawsuits pending against schools for their alleged failure to keep students safe. Among them are suits in California, Missouri, Georgia, Texas, New Jersey and New York. In Ohio, an 8-year-old boy hanged himself from his bunk bed after repeated harassment from schoolmates. His parents filed suit against the Cincinnati Public School system for being “deliberately indifferent” and allowing a “treacherous school environment” which caused their son to become fatally despondent. The schools are on record saying they did not ignore parent and student complaints but, rather, did the best they could to address each situation.
For older Americans there are multiple suicide triggers: relationship breakups, job losses, financial difficulties or a life crisis such as the death of a loved one or diagnosis of a major illness. Wrongful death lawsuits in this group are frequently filed against therapists and medical professionals. Simply Google “wrongful death attorney” to see how many lawyers are standing by to take suicide cases. (“You don’t pay unless we win!”) Attorney advertisements don’t mention they usually take more than 30% of any winning settlement. I’m not sure prolonging the grieving process with a long drawn out legal action is a healthy focus.
As for how suicides are accomplished? More than half of all suicides are carried out using a gun. Suffocation or hanging is the second leading cause of death, followed by poisoning. Other desperate people have stepped in front of a speeding train, jumped from tall buildings or used knives to slit major veins or arteries. The point is, the truly determined will find a way to end their life no matter what safety precautions have been taken. Blaming others for failure to guard against every conceivable suicide method is illogical.
Of course, at the very core of the problem is the level of sadness, loneliness and wretched hopelessness some of our fellow humans feel. Not until we become a more compassionate society, and it becomes easier for desperate people to get professional help, will the upward trend of suicide subside.
Therapists can’t be everywhere and loved ones see and understand more than anyone else. If you suspect someone you care about seems suicidal – do something. Every threat of suicide should be taken seriously. Everyone needs to learn the warning signs: mood swings, sleep disorders, acts of self-harm, withdrawal from others and changes of personality and/or appearance. There are readily available experts standing by to help.