Holding parents at fault for grown daughter’s suicide may do more harm, justices say

By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff
Posted Jan. 10, 2012, at 3:48 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Justices on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court said during a Tuesday hearing that holding the parents of Kristin Cummings liable for her suicide, which took place in their Norway home after they took her in, would send a dangerous message that Good Samaritans can be sued after trying to help someone in need.

Attorney Edward L. Dilworth III, representing the estate of the 25-year-old Cummings, argued before the state’s highest court Tuesday that parents James and Jadzia Davie are at fault because they left a loaded gun in reach of their reportedly suicidal daughter on the October 2008 day when she used it to kill herself.

The Davies have countered that son-in-law Mitchell Cummings, who initially pursued the lawsuit against the couple on behalf of his two children, was abusive and the gun was for protection from him.

“The parents were afraid that Mitchell Cummings would follow through on his threat to kill Kristin and her entire family if she left him, and she was planning to leave him,” attorney Elizabeth A. Germanti, representing the Davies, told the court Tuesday.

In May 2011, semiretired Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert Clifford granted summary judgment in Oxford County Superior Court to the Davies, writing in his decision that Mitchell Cummings “has not presented sufficient evidence to demonstrate the existence of any legal duty on the part of the parents giving rise to liability for their competent adult daughter’s tragic suicide.”

Dilworth argued Tuesday before the state’s highest court that Kristin Cummings had been discharged from a local hospital to her parents’ care with the understanding they would provide constant watch over her, in part because she previously had told law enforcement officers she was having suicidal thoughts.

Justice Joseph Jabar questioned Dilworth, saying that the hospital did not issue a blue paper for the woman, a form that officially would have declared her a risk and placed her under supervision.

“The parents did not have custody over her,” Justice Andrew Mead said. “They did not have guardianship over her. She could have gone anywhere she wanted to go.”

Justice Jon Levy questioned the Davies’ sense in leaving their suicidal daughter with access to a loaded firearm, but also acknowledged the precedent that could be set in holding them liable for the incident.

Mead agreed, saying that allowing a successful suit of the parents in this case could scare Good Samaritans from helping friends, family members or acquaintances because they could become legally at fault if their intervention doesn’t ultimately prevent a tragedy.

Dilworth countered that the hospital’s recommendations and the parents’ relationship to Kristin Cummings made her suicide case unique.

“But isn’t the message we’re sending, ‘Never help anyone,’” Mead said Tuesday. “’If I’m even negligent, I’m liable, so you’re on your own, suicidal friend.’ Isn’t that the message we’re sending?”

The court will issue its decision at a later date.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/01/10/news/portland/holding-parents-at-fault-for-grown-daughters-suicide-may-do-more-harm-justices-say/ printed on December 21, 2014