Tennessee Supreme Court Holds Evidence Not Enough to Hold Man Liable for Woman's Suicide

June 19, 2019

The Tennessee Supreme Court today, in a divided opinion, dismissed a negligence lawsuit filed by the estate of a woman who committed suicide.

In 2011, the defendant, Dr. Jerry Scott Wilson, a psychiatrist, and the decedent, Christina Marie Cotten, a registered nurse who worked with him, embarked on an affair. Dr. Wilson was single, but Ms. Cotten was married and had a young child. Ms. Cotten and her husband divorced, and they shared custody of their son equally.

In January 2014, after Ms. Cotten had moved into Dr. Wilson’s home, Ms. Cotten attempted suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills and wine. Ms. Cotten was released to Dr. Wilson, with Dr. Wilson’s assurance that Ms. Cotten would get follow-up care with her treating psychiatrist. After the discharge, Ms. Cotten ultimately continued seeing her regular treating psychiatrist, but she never told him she had attempted suicide.

Several months later, in August 2014, Dr. Wilson broke up with Ms. Cotten, and she moved out of his home, but they continued to have a mostly amicable off-and-on relationship.

In October 2014, while Ms. Cotten and her son were visiting with Dr. Wilson in his home, Dr. Wilson showed them a handgun he had recently received as a gift. Later that same evening, Dr. Wilson told Ms. Cotten he was interested in seeing another woman. Ms. Cotten became upset and stormed out of Dr. Wilson’s house.

About a week later, while Dr. Wilson was out of town on a business trip, Ms. Cotten called him to tell him that she had been evicted and to ask if she could temporarily stay in his home. Dr. Wilson agreed. While staying in Dr. Wilson’s home, Ms. Cotten retrieved the handgun Dr. Wilson had shown her months earlier, loaded it, and fatally shot herself.

Ms. Cotten’s estate filed this wrongful death lawsuit against Dr. Wilson, claiming that he negligently facilitated Ms. Cotten’s suicide. Prior to trial, the trial court dismissed the lawsuit. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that there was enough evidence to allow a jury to determine whether Dr. Wilson should have foreseen that Ms. Cotten would use his gun to take her own life.

The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and affirmed the trial court’s decision in favor of Dr. Wilson. It first noted the general rule that, in a wrongful death action where the death is the result of a suicide, the cause of death is usually deemed to be the decedent’s choice to commit suicide; this typically cuts off others’ responsibility for the decedent’s actions. The Court concluded that the estate had failed to prove that Ms. Cotten’s suicide with Dr. Wilson’s gun was “a reasonably foreseeable probability,” which was the applicable legal standard. As a result, the Court dismissed the estate’s lawsuit.

Justice Sharon G. Lee dissented, finding there was sufficient evidence that Ms. Cotten’s suicide was foreseeable to Dr. Wilson. Ms. Cotten first attempted suicide in Dr. Wilson’s home. Dr. Wilson did not make sure that Ms. Cotten received follow-up care with her treating psychiatrist as he had promised to do. In fact, Ms. Cotten did not see her treating psychiatrist until June 2014, over four months later.

Dr. Wilson broke up with Ms. Cotten in August 2014, but Dr. Wilson and Ms. Cotten continued their on-again, off-again relationship. On October 26, 2014, after showing Ms. Cotten his gun, Dr. Wilson told her about the other woman, causing Ms. Cotten to storm out of the house after an angry outburst.

A week later, while Dr. Wilson was on a business trip, he let Ms. Cotten stay at his house where he kept the gun in an unlocked drawer even though he knew she was depressed. When Dr. Wilson returned home on November 9, 2014, he found Ms. Cotten dead from a self-inflicted wound from his gun.

Justice Lee noted that Dr. Wilson is a board-certified psychiatrist who knew about Ms. Cotten’s ongoing battle with depression, the link between depression and suicide, and the need to keep a gun away from a person suffering from depression. Given that the Court is required to accept the estate’s evidence as true and to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the estate, Justice Lee concluded that a reasonable jury could find that Ms. Cotten’s suicide was foreseeable. For that reason, Justice Lee dissented, and would have allowed the estate an opportunity to present its evidence to a jury.

To read the majority opinion in Cotten v. Wilson, authored by Justice Holly Kirby, and the dissent, authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.