Revisiting impulsivity in suicide: Implications for civil liability of third parties



Previous research and popular conceptualizations of suicide have posited that many suicides are the result of impulsive, “on a whim” decisions. However, recent research demonstrates that most suicides are not attempted impulsively, and in fact involve a plan. Legally, suicide has historically been considered to be a superseding intervening cause of death that exonerates other parties from liability, but currently there are two general exceptions to this view. Specifically, another party may be found responsible for a suicide if that party either caused the suicide or failed in its duty to prevent the suicide from occurring. Both of these exceptions assume that the resulting suicide was foreseeable. Given that recent research has indicated that most suicides are planned, and thereby foreseeable to a certain extent under many circumstances, this article discusses issues of foreseeability as they pertain to litigation involving third party liability for the suicide of university students, prison inmates, and mental health patients. The authors contend that the surest way for universities, prison staff, and mental health practitioners to avoid being held liable for a suicide is to appropriately assess for suicidal intent. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.