Court reinstates negligence suit over suicide call
RHODE ISLAND–The state Supreme Court voted 4-1 in late December to reinstate a woman’s 1994 lawsuit claiming that a television reporter’s actions led to her husband’s suicide. The court overturned a lower court’s dismissal of the claims, finding that the question of negligence has to be answered by a jury.
In May 1993, Bruce Clift sequestered himself in his home and told his wife that he was going to commit suicide. Clift then cut his own throat with a piece of glass and began firing a pistol at the ceiling and into the bushes outside. State police cordoned off the area and informed the media that they were involved in delicate negotiations with a mentally ill person.
During the standoff, WJAR-TV (Channel 12) reporter Susan Hogan telephoned Clift and interviewed him. In the interview he stressed that he was not going to surrender and that he intended to commit suicide. Channel 12 broadcast the interview during its six o’clock news and three minutes later, Clift fatally shot himself in the head.
In February 1994, Judith Clift filed a civil suit in the Providence County Superior Court against the station for numerous claims, including negligence, infliction of emotional distress and wrongful death. The court dismissed all claims, finding that the reporter did not owe a duty of care to Clift or his wife, and that the journalist’s actions were not outrageous. Clift appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court.
In late December 1996, the high court ruled 4-1 that the reporter may have acted negligently. They added that notwithstanding First Amendment constitutional protections, everyone, including the press, should be answerable for unprivileged negligent actions that lead to a suicide. The court concluded that the trial judge should not have dismissed the negligence and wrongful death claims. The court affirmed dismissal of the invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims and decided that punitive damages would be inappropriate.
The dissenting judge said he would have also reversed the dismissal of the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. He did not believe that proof of physical symptoms of emotional distress should be a necessary element of the cause of action. (Clift v. Narragansett Television L.P.; Media Counsel: Joseph Cavanagh)