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Illinois Court Holds That Suicide Can Be Raised As Contributory Negligence Defense in Wrongful Death Suits Against Physicians

By Lenny Giltman, Legal Intern

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled late last year that physicians in wrongful death lawsuits concerning patients who have committed suicide can raise contributory negligence as a defense. Hobart v. Shin, 1998 WL 884567 (Ill. Sup. Ct. Dec, 17, 1998). The case involved a patient who committed suicide by overdosing on medication prescribed by Dr. Shin, a primary care physician who was treating her on an outpatient basis. In Illinois, a plaintiff whose contributory negligence is more than 50 percent of the proximate cause of the damage for which recovery is sought is barred from recovering any damages. The Illinois Supreme Court rejected the argument that contributory negligence should be categorically inapplicable to patients who commit suicide while under treatment for suicidal tendencies. Rather, it chose to treat the contributory negligence of a mentally disturbed person as a question of fact unless the evidence shows that the person is so mentally ill that he or she is incapable of being contributorily negligent.