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Friday, September 2, 2022

Motel not liable for guest's suicide, court rules, despite family warning of risk, asking for room number

CC0 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons
The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday rejected Motel 6 liability for the suicide of a guest.

The September 1 decision broke no new ground, but reiterated the interrelationship of duty doctrines in negligence and Massachusetts repudiation of the common law "suicide rule."

Decedent Michael C. Bonafini took his own life in a room of the Motel 6 in Chicopee, Massachusetts, just north of Springfield in 2015. The mother and wife of the decedent blamed the motel because they went there in the night and morning trying to reach him, and motel staff would not reveal his room number. In the morning, the mother told the motel clerk that the decedent was at risk of suicide. The clerk called the room, but the decedent answered and immediately hung up. He was found dead when the motel manager entered the room at noon checkout time.

The case implicates potentially conflicting duty relationships in the common law of negligence. The reputed "suicide rule" of historical common law held that there can be no liability for a suicide. At the same time, common law recognizes an affirmative duty of an innkeeper to a guest, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has recognized a duty to prevent suicide in some circumstances.

Historically, courts were loath to impose accident liability for an intentional act of self-harm on an earlier-in-time actor, especially when the intentional act was an attempt to commit suicide. The conclusion could be reached either by ruling that there was no duty to prevent another from intentional self-harm, which usually was criminalized, or by reasoning that the abrupt, violent, and intentional act of suicide dispositively interrupted the requisite chain of proximate causation.

It's arguable that there never was a "suicide rule," per se, rather a doctrine of duty and causation that was informed by social norms. Norms change. Suicide is less often today regarded as a matter for criminal justice, even if criminal laws remain on the books to justify the intervention of authorities. The trend in tort law is to employ the usual doctrines of duty and causation to analyze the facts of each case. That said, the "suicide rule" still holds sway, because the doctrines of duty and causation still disfavor the imposition of an affirmative duty to prevent injury and disfavor negligence liability for causal actors earlier in time than intentional injurers (this blog, Feb. 9, 2021).

On the question of duty, the instant case is complicated in two respects, one on the law and one on the facts. First, an innkeeper-guest relationship is one in which common law historically does impose an affirmative duty, on the innkeeper for the protection of the guest. Second, insofar as an affirmative duty might exist, it can be predicated on knowledge of risk, which the decedent's mother gave to the motel clerk.

The innkeeper-guest relationship did not get the plaintiffs to the finish line. The purpose of the common law duty is to oblige an innkeeper, like a landlord, to protect the guest from risks the innkeeper might know about, and the guest does not, in the vein of premises liability; or, at the extreme, risks of any nature that an innkeeper might be better positioned to mitigate than a guest can.

The court summarized past cases in which Massachusetts courts recognized an innkeeper-to-guest duty: failure to prevent stabbing by intruder for want of an adequate security system; failure to protect guest from fire set by arsonist; and failure to prevent battery by another guest. All three examples implicate an intermediate intentional, and tortious or criminal actor. But in the first two cases, the causal risks relate to the premises: a security system and fire response. There is no intermediately causal premises risk in the instant case.

The battery case seems more on point, and the court here did not make the distinction plain. But on the facts of that case, the plaintiff was stabbed at an event for which the defendant innkeeper had hired security guards. The case is best understood as a duty voluntarily undertaken by the defendant, and then executed negligently. In one count based on innkeeper-guest duty and one count based on ordinary negligence, the plaintiff complained that the security guards had negligently failed to restrain a drunken patron. The jury returned a generalized plaintiff's verdict that the court concluded was supported by the evidence.

So the problem for the plaintiff-representative in the instant case is that the decedent was not injured by the premises, and the defendant motel voluntarily undertook no duty to protect the decedent beyond the usual duties of an innkeeper. In fact, the innkeeper-guest duty arguably cuts against the plaintiff's position. Were a clerk to violate a guest's privacy by revealing the room number to a requester concealing ill intentions, the motel could be held liable for injury inflicted on the guest by the requester-intruder.

That said, the decedent's mother and wife were understandably frustrated with the clerk's stubbornness, under the circumstances, and their fears were vindicated tragically. The plaintiff's best strategy was to tie the alleged misconduct of the defendant to the responsibilities of an innkeeper, moving the causal focus away from the decedent's intentional act and changing the conversation from negligent failure to act to negligent action. In this vein, the plaintiff alleged not that the clerk necessarily should have revealed the room number, but that, instead of telephoning and giving up, the clerk should have summoned police to conduct a wellness check.

The court did not indulge the plaintiff's theory long enough to parse the details. But the basic problem even with the plaintiff's best gloss on the case is that the mother and wife could have called the police, too, and did not. Indeed, the court, fairly or not, faulted the family for being coy in characterizing the risk: "Indeed, all that is alleged is that [the] mother and wife informed motel employees that [decedent] was at risk of suicide, and asked for his room number so they could assist him. They did not tell the employees that [he] had stated an intention or plan to commit suicide or that he had recently attempted suicide." Perhaps the family feared negative repercussions of police intervention.

The plaintiff's case was buoyed modestly if insufficiently by Massachusetts high court holdings that a university may be held liable for a student's suicide. In 2018, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that MIT did not owe a duty to a student who committed suicide on the facts of the case (this blog, May 7, 2018). But the court left the door open to a different analysis on different facts, and, the next year, the court allowed a case to go forward against Harvard (this blog, Sept. 30, 2019).

The Appeals Court distinguished the instant case from the Harvard case because the motel did not have enough information to ground an affirmative duty. In the Harvard case, the court looked to "stated plans or intentions to commit suicide." Here, again, the mother and daughter were coy as to the severity of the risk. And, the court added, there was no evidence that anything the decedent said or did suggested suicidal intentions to motel staff. Indeed, while a university knows a lot about its students, sometimes even affirmatively providing mental healthcare, innkeepers, the court opined, "usually are unlikely to know much—if anything—about their guests."

Incidentally, criminal liability for another person's suicide is a different problem. I mention it only because Massachusetts is the state in which Michelle Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the suicide death of Conrad Roy. A civil case was settled in 2019. Just a couple of weeks ago, I watched The Girl from Plainville (2022), a serial dramatization, and I don't recommend it. Maybe too soon to be reminded that the matter was a tragedy for everyone involved.

The instant case in the Appeals Court is Bonafini v. G6 Hospitality, LLC, No. 20-P-1409 (Sept. 1, 2022) (temporary court posting). Justice Gabrielle R. Wolohojian wrote the opinion of the unanimous panel.

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