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Ramsey v. Cocke County

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

June 23, 2017

BRENDA RAMSEY
v.
COCKE COUNTY, TENNESSEE, ETAL.

          Session March 24, 2017.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Cocke County No. 33414-II Richard R. Vance, Judge

         In this wrongful death action, the decedent's mother filed suit alleging that the county emergency communications district and the city police department refused to send help when the plaintiff called to report that her daughter was making suicidal threats and that, as a result, her daughter committed suicide later the same night. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on the ground that the decedent's suicide constituted an intervening, superseding cause. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, we conclude that the decedent's suicide was foreseeable and that the special duty exception to the public duty doctrine applies. We, therefore, reverse the trial court's grant of summary judgment and remand for further proceedings.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Circuit Court Reversed and Remanded

          Justin G. Day, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Brenda Ramsey.

          Russell W. Adkins, Kingsport, Tennessee, for the appellee, Cocke County Emergency Communications District.

          Daniel R. Pilkington, Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellee, City of Newport, Tennessee.

          Andy D. Bennett, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and Thomas R. Frierson, II, J., joined.

          OPINION

          ANDY D. BENNETT, JUDGE

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Brenda Ramsey filed this wrongful death action in April 2014, individually and as the personal representative of Rebecca Ramsey, her daughter, against Cocke County, [1]Cocke County Emergency Communications District ("the ECD" or "the District"), and the City of Newport/Newport Police Department ("the City" or "the Department"). She alleged causes of action for negligence/wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress. Rebecca was born on January 18, 1992 and committed suicide on April 7, 2013.

         Brenda Ramsey's complaint includes the following allegations concerning the events prior to Rebecca's death:

10. By the evening hours of April 7, 2013, Brenda Ramsey became increasingly concerned about the unexplained serious mental and behavioral status of her daughter. Rebecca's mental and behavioral status continued to decline to the point that by approximately 8:30 p.m., she began to indicate that she intended to take her own life.
11. After Brenda Ramsey heard her daughter's suicide threats at approximately 8:30 p.m. on April 7, 2013, she dialed 9-1-1, and was connected to a dispatcher (identity unknown) employed by Defendants Cocke County and the District. Brenda Ramsey told the dispatcher that she was in fear of her daughter's life due to her suicide threats and her erratic and unexplained behavior. She also told the dispatcher that she needed the assistance of an officer to help her immediately restrain her daughter or otherwise take the precautions necessary to prevent her daughter from harming herself.
12. The Cocke County 9-1-1 District dispatcher refused to contact the local police or other uniformed officer or responder and specially indicated that it "was not their policy to respond to domestic family issues."
13. At or around 9:15 p.m. on April 7, 2013, as the concerns for her daughter continued to escalate, Brenda Ramsey placed a second call to the District 9-1-1. The dispatcher was [again informed] about Rebecca Ramsey's altered behavioral state and her threats to take her own life. The dispatcher was also informed that Rebecca was damaging property inside the house in a violent rage. Again, the dispatcher explained that it was not their policy to send responders in situations like this. After Brenda Ramsey continued to insist that an officer be sent out, the dispatcher indicated that she would get an officer on the line to confirm that this was "their policy." An officer (who identified himself as Officer Woody), an employee of the Defendant City of Newport/Newport Police Department, came on the line and responded only by confirming what the dispatcher had told him about the policy which did not require a response to issues that the dispatcher classified as "domestic" in nature. The City of Newport Police Department was approximately one mile from Brenda Ramsey's home.
14. After dialing 9-1-1 and after the Defendants refused to send out an officer for the second time, Brenda Ramsey drove to the Newport Police Department to plead for some assistance in person. Unfortunately, the doors to the police office were locked and there was no officer to be found, so she returned home.

         When Brenda Ramsey returned home, Rebecca had killed herself.

         The ECD and the City disagree with Brenda Ramsey's description of her communications with them. In its answer, the City denied that Brenda Ramsey "notified any employee of the City of Newport that her daughter had threatened suicide or threatened to harm herself [or] anyone else." Similarly, in response to the plaintiff's request for admissions, the City denied that "Brenda Ramsey requested that an officer come to her home because her daughter Rebecca Ramsey had threatened suicide." The Department also denied that one of its employees "refused to send an officer or first responder to the home of Brenda Ramsey" on April 7, 2013. In its answer, the ECD stated that Brenda Ramsey "did not inform Cocke County E-911 of suicidal threats, altered behavior, property damage or violence." The ECD further stated that the District "offered to send an officer to the home, but Plaintiff asked that a police officer instead call her." The District further alleged that it promptly connected Brenda Ramsey to the police department.

         In September 2015, after the parties had engaged in discovery, the ECD filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that the District did not owe the plaintiff a duty of care pursuant to the public duty doctrine and that the District "did not legally cause" any of the plaintiff's injuries. In support of its motion, the District submitted a statement of undisputed material facts and excerpts from the depositions of Brenda Ramsey and Lorran Michelle Lane, an ECD dispatcher who spoke with Ms. Ramsey on the evening of April 7, 2013. In July 2016, the Department filed a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that the City of Newport "did not owe any duty to the decedent to prevent her from voluntarily taking her own life" and that the decedent's suicide "is an intervening and independent cause which supersedes any liability and is the proximate cause of the death of the decedent." To support its motion, the Department filed a statement of undisputed material facts and excerpts from the depositions of Brenda Ramsey, Ms. Lane, and Matthew Elliott, an officer with the Department.

         Ms. Ramsey responded to the statements of undisputed material facts filed by the Department and the District. She disputed many of the factual statements and continued to assert the facts set forth in her complaint, with affidavit excerpts in support of her contentions. Ms. Ramsey agreed that "[n]either Ms. Lane nor Officer Elliott assured Ms. Ramsey that any assistance would be sent." Both defendants agreed that the factual statements in Ms. Ramsey's statement of genuine issues of material facts in dispute were disputed, but they characterized the facts as being "immaterial" to the motion for summary judgment.

         In response to the defendants' motions for summary judgment, Ms. Ramsey submitted an affidavit by Ken Katsaris, a law enforcement officer and consultant, who opined that the ECD had a "duty to dispatch a police officer to the home of Brenda Ramsey if such a request was made" and that "[t]he police officers employed by the City of Newport also had a duty to come to the home of Ms. Ramsey if such a request was made." Mr. Katsaris further opined that the defendants' failure to respond to Ms. Ramsey's requests for help amounted to reckless misconduct. Ms. Ramsey also submitted portions of her own deposition and of the depositions of Ms. Lane and Mr. Elliott in opposition to the defendants' motions.

         The trial court held a hearing on the defendants' motions for summary judgment on August 29, 2016, and it made the following pertinent findings from the bench, which were incorporated into the final order entered on October 7, 2016:

It is disputed as to what was said between the 911 operator and Ms. Ramsey. It's disputed as to what was said between the officer and Ms. Ramsey.
It is undisputed that no one from the Newport Police Department or 911 had any direct contact or communication of any kind with Rebecca Ramsey, the young lady. It is undisputed ...

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