A mother can amend her wrongful death suit to include a punitive damages claim against the college where her son committed suicide, a federal district judge has ruled.
The plaintiff’s claim for punitives centered on her assertion that college officials were on notice that the student was suicidal and that they failed to take reasonable steps to prevent his death.
The college responded that the amendment should be struck because it was “futile.”
The judge surveyed the law in the 4th Circuit and the Western District on the “futility” of an amendment, noting that the cases on the issue were not consistent. He settled on a standard equating a determination of futility with that of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.
Describing it as “a close call,” the judge permitted the claim to proceed, citing knowledge by a college dean of an e-mail in which the student said he was “sorry.”
“Here, if the evidence can sustain reckless indifference or conscious disregard in failing to act on the information, a claim for punitive damages can be maintained,” the judge said.
The case is Schieszler v. Ferrum College (VLW 002-3-364). Senior U.S. District Judge Jackson L. Kiser wrote the 18-page opinion.
Breakup preceded death
The student, an Illinois resident, started his freshman year at the college in the fall of 1999. During his first semester, college officials required the student to go to counseling due to “disciplinary issues,” including anger-management counseling.
In the winter of 2000, the student had an argument with his girlfriend in the student’s dorm room. Responding campus police and a resident assistant ordered the girl to leave the student’s room.
When the girl and other students informed campus police that the student may have attempted to hang himself, the police went back to the student’s room and found the door locked. The student eventually opened the door but told police that he wanted to be alone. The student said that “bruises on his head and neck were self-inflicted,” according to Kiser.
The campus police informed the dean of student affairs, who had conducted one of the counseling workshops for the student, of the student’s statement that he intended to harm himself. The dean then had the student promise not to harm himself again.
Subsequently, the dean and another counselor left the student by himself and went to discuss the matter with the student’s girlfriend, who told them that the student had tried before to hang himself with a belt and a hanger. She reiterated her belief that the student would try to hang himself again.
During the discussion, an unnamed third party received an e-mail from the student in which he said that he was “sorry.” The student also asked the party to tell his girlfriend that he loved her.
The girlfriend informed the dean and the counselor of the student’s e-mail. The dean and counselor stayed with the girlfriend. Later, they went back to the student’s room and discovered that he was dead.
The plaintiff filed her complaint in February 2002, seeking damages for wrongful death from the college and three officials. After the defendants moved to dismiss the claim, the plaintiff amended her complaint.
Later, the plaintiff filed a second amended complaint seeking punitive damages, alleging that the “defendants’ conduct was willful, wanton and in reckless disregard of [the student's] life. …” The defendants countered by contending that the amended complaint was futile.
‘A close call’
“There is some confusion in this circuit as to what standard the court should apply in determining whether an amendment is futile,” Kiser explained.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Kiser said, has ruled that an amendment is futile when it is “clearly insufficient or frivolous on its face.” A district court case, by contrast, says that futility is consistent with an amendment’s failure to withstand summary judgment. Finally, the defendants cited other cases citing that Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides the proper standard.
Looking to the 4th Circuit, Kiser said the case’s “language of ‘clearly insufficient or frivolous on its face’ accords quite closely with the Rule 12(b) examination of insufficiency on the face of the pleadings.”
Kiser concluded, “Therefore, I will determine whether plaintiff’s proposed amendment claiming punitive damages is clearly insufficient on its face under Rule 12(b)(6).”
Virginia courts have held that punitive damages are proper “only in cases of the most egregious conduct,” Kiser said. Such conduct includes “negligence which is so willful or wanton as to evince a conscious disregard of the rights of others.”
Kiser then cited the student’s e-mail from the student to the third party, focusing on the complaint’s assertion that the dean of students left the student alone after becoming aware of the message.
“Although it is a close call,” Kiser said, “at this time I believe that plaintiff’s proposed amendment is not futile.”
Roanoke lawyers Arthur P. Strickland, who represents the plaintiff, and Jonnie L. Speight, who represents the defendant, could not be reached for comment.