Can an institution be held civilly liable when a resident commits suicide? A Philadelphia jury recently awarded roughly $3 million to the family of Carley Long, a 16-year-old that committed suicide while receiving treatment at Bethany Children's Home facility in Womelsdorf. This facility is a children's residential treatment home that operates in Berks County. The facility was determined to have ignored warnings and indications that may have prevented the suicide. Calvin Long, Carley's father, was the plaintiff in the case that was filed after the girl was killed by a Norfolk Southern train nearby. Norfolk Southern, who was originally a defendant, was dismissed from the case.
Day of the Incident
Bethany Children's Home provides care and programs for approximately 300 children each year that are between the ages of 13 and 21. Carley has previously attempted suicide on several occasions. She suffered from a mental health condition known as bipolar disorder. The claim stated that the staff failed to “keep her within sight and hearing distance.” Another resident supposedly threatened Carley with a knife earlier on the day she died.
Long was also believed to have been discouraged that day after being informed that she would be remaining as a resident for a longer period than she had expected. The claim said that she had been denied multiple times that day when asking to use the telephone to contact her father. The governing regulation at Bethany is said to be that children remain within “earshot” or “eyeshot” of staff at all times.
Failure in Supervision
During the trial, Bethany's staff had apparently agreed that Carley had exited the building; therefore, could not be seen or heard. Apparently, no staff member had noticed that she had left the facility. There was an allegation that Bethany placed “profits ahead of safety” in this incident. Following the verdict, a family member stated that they hope the case will serve as a reminder of the importance of close supervision of those with mental health conditions.
Question of Liability
The defense has firmly denied that they are liable for Carley's death. The defense also denied that evidence of Long's intentions was apparent. The staff claimed that there was no clear indication that suggested Carley was going to harm herself or that she was an “imminent threat” to create any harm. Defense attorneys felt that the case should have been dismissed. They believe that Pennsylvania's laws regarding wrongful death do not apply in cases of suicide. The defense stated intent to appeal the case.
Some of the facts regarding the condition are as follows:
- Years ago, the condition was referred to as manic depression
- Individuals with the condition demonstrate extremes such as emotional highs and severe periods of depression
- Many who suffer from this condition isolate themselves and fail to derive much pleasure from most activities
- The “highs” experienced are feelings described as energizing or euphoric
- Bipolar disorder has shown to be effectively treated with medication and counseling
Wrongful Death in Pennsylvania
When someone is killed as a result of someone's neglect, unlawful action, or negligence, the surviving family may pursue damages. Most commonly these cases are brought by a spouse or children. Under common law, there were not specific wrongful death provisions.