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IL: Suicide as a Proximate Cause of Lawyer Malpractice? No Way!

Cleveland v. Rotman, 297 F. 3d 569 (7th Cir. 2002)

IL: Underlying tax advice

Student Contributor: Clem Durham

Facts: In 1996 Cleveland retained Rotman for advice in resolving the tax dispute. At the time, Cleveland’s therapist informed Rotman of Cleveland’s poor financial status, his severe depression, and his suicidal tendencies. Rotman advised Cleveland that he needed to file tax returns for a 10-year period, but Cleveland claimed that he was unable to calculate his income and expenses for this period because his financial records had been lost during office moves and discarded by others during divorce proceedings. As a result, it is alleged that Rotman told Cleveland to estimate his income and expenses for the relevant years. Apparently, Cleveland’s estimates did not agree with IRS figures and the IRS decided to audit him again. On January 26, 1998, shortly before the audit was scheduled to take place, Cleveland shot himself in the head. Cleveland’s estate alleges that Rotman committed malpractice, which triggered the IRS’s proposed 1998 audit, which in turn triggered Cleveland’s suicide. The estate argues that the district court erred in ruling that, as a matter of law, a plaintiff’s allegations were insufficient under Rule 12(b)(6).

Issue: Whether under Illinois law a plaintiff may recover for a decedent’s suicide following a breach of contract?

Ruling: No. It is well-established under Illinois law that a plaintiff may not recover for a decedent’s suicide following a tortious act because suicide is an independent intervening event that the tortfeasor cannot be expected to foresee. The 7th circuit agreed with the district court and found this rationale equally applicable in the contract context and therefore dismissed the estate’s claims arising from Cleveland’s suicide. Cleveland’s suicide was an independent intervening event that broke the chain of causation from Rotman’s alleged malpractice to Cleveland’s death. Cleveland was an adult, and the estate has not alleged that he was mentally unstable. Essentially, Cleveland’s estate seeks to impose on Rotman a duty to foresee and avoid a client’s suicide. Although an Illinois court imposed such a duty on a psychiatrist who knew of his patient’s history of suicidal depression and yet failed to protect the patient from self-harm, the estate here points to no case law extending such a duty to the attorney-client context. Because of the differences between the psychiatrist-patient relationship and the attorney-client relationship, we see no justification for extending such a duty to attorneys. Psychiatrists are health care professionals trained to care for their patients’ mental and emotional health. By contrast, attorneys are medical laypeople who cannot be reasonably expected to anticipate the mental health consequences of their legal advice.

Lesson: Lawyer’s cannot be liable for a client’s suicide as a result of their giving of poor legal advice. A client’s suicide is unforeseeable because attorneys are not trained medical practitioners; and therefore, should not be responsible for foreseeing a client’s likelihood of committing suicide.

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Posted in: Federal, Illinois, Proximate Cause