D.C. Circuit Court: Personal Representative’s Civil Action Against Employer for Negligent Provision of Firearm to Suicide Victim/Employee May Not Proceed

In a case with a number of interesting twists, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit recently affirmed a decision by a U.S. District Court that, in relevant part, had dismissed a wrongful death action filed against a security services employer who supplied a gun to one of its employees who used the gun to take his own life [see Rollins v. Wackenhut Servs., Inc., 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 26549 (D.C. Cir., Dec. 28, 2012)]. The deceased employee’s personal representative took the position that the employer issued the gun to the deceased without adequately investigating his background and mental history, that an adequate examination would have revealed a long history of mental illness, and that the employer’s negligence was a substantial cause in allowing the deceased’s suicide. The D.C. Circuit Court agreed with the district court that the deceased’s act was an intervening event that precluded liability.  

Factual Background

Devin Bailey had a history of mental problems. He withdrew from college because of depression and mental health problems. He joined the Navy but was quickly discharged after having been hospitalized for psychosis only a few days into his service. Later, when Bailey’s mother attempted to have him transported involuntarily to a mental hospital for treatment, he attacked a police officer, kicked him and was arrested for the assault and for carrying a dangerous weapon–an 8 inch knife. He was subsequently diagnosed as having Bipolar Disorder, Severe with Psychotic Features.

Some time later, Bailey voluntarily admitted himself to a hospital, where doctors prescribed him the antipsychotic drug ABILIFYÆ. An accompanying “black-box warning” stated: “Children, adolescents, and young adults taking antidepressants for major depressive disorder (MDD) and other psychiatric disorders are at increased risk of suicidal thinking and behavior.” Still later, he applied for a job with the employer, who provided security services to the federal government. He was hired as an armed guard at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. According to the personal representative’s wrongful death complaint, the employer did not examine Bailey’s Navy service record, ignored the fact that Bailey had an outstanding warrant related to an unresolved criminal charge of assault and battery, and nevertheless hired him as a guard and gave him a gun. Approximately one month after he received the weapon, Bailey fatally shot himself while on duty in one of the Walter Reed guard shacks.

District Court Dismisses the Complaint, But Not on Exclusivity Grounds

The district court rejected the employer’s argument that the wrongful death action against it was barred by the exclusive remedy provisions of the D.C. Workers’ Compensation Act (“the Act), agreeing with the plaintiff that the Act [see D.C. Code § 32–1504(a) & (b)] did not apply ”where injury to the employee was occasioned solely by his intoxication or by his willful intention to injure or kill himself or another.“ The district court noted, however, that by relying on D.C. Code § 32–1503(d) to escape the Act’s coverage, plaintiff ”effectively admitted that the suicide was a willful and intentional act.” If the death was the result of Bailey’s intentional act, it could not have been the result of the employer’s negligence, reasoned the district court. Therefore, the case was dismissed.

Court of Appeals Decision

The appeals court noted the personal representative’s core argument, that if the employer had properly investigated Bailey’s background, it would have discovered that he was prohibited from possessing a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g), which prohibits firearms possession by any “fugitive from justice,” “mental defective,” or person “who has been committed to a mental institution.” The appeals court agreed with the district court that other courts have generally rejected suicide negligence claims premised on violations of § 922(g) or other gun control statutes. While the D.C. Court of Appeals had never addressed a case of negligent firearm distribution that resulted in suicide, for some time it had affirmed a broad general rule against negligence liability for suicide. The appeals court agreed that Bailey’s suicide was an intervening act that precluded the employer’s liability under D.C. law.

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