South Dakota Supreme Court Rules that Suicide Case Not Subject to Reasonable Person Standard for Contributory Negligence

In light of the Larry Manzanares suicide case in Denver, this South Dakota case for a couple years ago may be illustrative. It got very little attention but should have. The South Dakota Supreme Court has ordered a new trial in the suicide case of Kristi Dodson. At issue is an interesting question of the standard to apply to a suicidal mind and the concept of contributory negligence.

Dodson, 21, was released from the Human Services Center in Yankton on April 11, 2001. The next day, after returning home with her husband, she disappeared and two weeks later her body was found in the trunk of a car parked at an apartment complex. She had suffocated herself by tying a plastic bag over her head.

Dodson has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and her husband sued HSC and Dr. Hartley Alsgaard, a psychiatrist at the mental hospital, for malpractice and negligence –alleging that she was prematurally released. Notably, she tried to commit suicide on April 1, 2001 while at Avera McKennan Hospital in Sioux Falls. The medication that she received on that occasion had not fully taken hold when she committed suicide.

A jury decided on Feb. 13, 200, that Alsgaard prematurely released Dodson, but they barred any recovery on the basis of her own contributory negligence. It was a fascinating ruling since any suicide would likely be barred under standard concepts of contributory negligence which use an objective reasonable person standard. Anyone committing suicide would be viewed under this standard as grossly unreasonable.

The Supreme Court ruled that the trial court should not have given the standard instruction on contributory negligence.

The Court held that “[t]he jury was instructed that Kristi’s conduct had to be measured by the standard of a reasonable person in those circumstances. They were not instructed that Kristi’s conduct was to be judged in light of her mental capacity.”

“The evidence in this case was sufficient to show mental incapacity on the part of Kristi and that HSC and Dr. Alsgaard had notice of that incapacity. Her suicide attempt on April 1 gave them notice of this condition and reason to anticipate that Kristi could harm herself.”

It is a very interesting ruling that is likely to be cited around the country in such cases.

For the opinion, click here

4 thoughts on “South Dakota Supreme Court Rules that Suicide Case Not Subject to Reasonable Person Standard for Contributory Negligence”

  1. Comparative negligence seems more appropriate to this case and we would apply some kind of percentage of culpability so far as recovery.

  2. The opinion has an obvious internal logic, but it suggests a type of reasonable deranged person standard. The point is that contributory negligence would have to be blocked if any recovery is allowed in such cases. In contributory negligence states, any contributory negligence is a complete bar to recovery. In a comparative negligence, it depends on whether it is a partial or pure jurisdiction. (Partial would bar any contributory negligence over 50%).

  3. Well, it would seem the jury was wrongly instructed and it is inexplicable to me how that could have happened. Obviously a factor was that she had been administered some type of medication and the court must have thought that elevated her to the standard.

    But any expert witness could (and definitely would) testify that anti-depressant medications share a whole set of limitations including long latency periods before becoming effective and other factors that kick in when more than one anti-depressant agent is being used (dosage adjustments which differ with each patient).

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