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In re Estate of Cotten

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

September 15, 2017


          August 24, 2017 Session

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Williamson County No. 2015-194 Michael W. Binkley, Judge

         The personal representative, on behalf of the decedent's estate, brought this negligence action against the defendant based, inter alia, on the defendant's alleged acts of displaying and failing to properly store and prevent accessibility to the firearm with which the decedent ultimately committed suicide. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant, determining that he owed no duty of care to the decedent and that her suicide was an independent, intervening cause that broke the chain of causation. The estate has appealed. Based upon the applicable balancing test, we conclude that the defendant owed a legal duty of care to the decedent and that summary judgment was improperly granted in the defendant's favor on the basis of lack of duty. We further determine that the estate's evidence at the summary judgment stage was sufficient to establish the existence of a genuine issue of material fact for trial regarding causation. We therefore vacate the trial court's grant of summary judgment and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We affirm, however, the trial court's determination that no special relationship existed such as to impose liability for nonfeasance.

          H. Douglas Nichol, Knoxville, Tennessee, and John Chadwick Long, Gallatin, Tennessee, for the appellant, Benjamin Shea Cotten, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Christina Marie Cotten.

          Christopher M. Jones and Britney K. Pope, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellee, Dr. Jerry Scott Wilson.

          Thomas R. Frierson, II, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and Richard H. Dinkins, J., joined.



         I. Factual and Procedural Background[1]

         Benjamin Shea Cotten[2] filed this negligence action on May 4, 2015, concerning the death of his ex-wife, Christina Marie Cotten ("Decedent"), on behalf of her estate ("the Estate"). Decedent committed suicide at the home of the defendant, Dr. Jerry Wilson, on November 9, 2014.

         Mr. Cotten and Decedent were married in July 2006 and had one child together, a son, in 2010. Later that same year, Decedent became a registered nurse and obtained employment at Skyline Hospital in Nashville. Dr. Wilson, a board-certified psychiatrist, was the Director of the Military Unit at Skyline Hospital at that time. Decedent was employed as a nurse in this unit.

         In May 2011, Dr. Wilson and Decedent commenced a dating relationship, notwithstanding Dr. Wilson's knowledge that Decedent was married. Mr. Cotten and Decedent separated after Mr. Cotten discovered Decedent's relationship with Dr. Wilson. The Cottens' divorce was finalized in June 2012. Concerning residential care and responsibilities for their child, the divorce decree provided for Decedent and Mr. Cotten to exercise equal co-parenting time with their son.

         Following the divorce, Decedent and Dr. Wilson continued their relationship, which led to Decedent's moving into Dr. Wilson's residence in October 2013. Sometime after Dr. Wilson and Decedent began residing together, Dr. Wilson observed that Decedent suffered crying spells and appeared to struggle with the loss of her job and eviction from her previous residence. Dr. Wilson acknowledged that Decedent seemed depressed at times, was not energetic or motivated, and did not take care of herself on certain days. In late 2013, Decedent informed Dr. Wilson that she had decided to seek treatment for depression and other mental health issues with Dr. Roy Asta, a psychiatrist who was also employed at Skyline. By the end of 2013, Dr. Wilson was aware that Decedent was taking Prozac and Klonopin for her depression.

         Dr. Asta testified that he began treating Decedent in March 2013. Decedent initially presented with complaints of depression and anxiety. Dr. Asta diagnosed Decedent with depression, prescribing Prozac, Klonopin, and supportive psychotherapy as treatment. According to Dr. Asta, Decedent informed him on her first visit that she and Dr. Wilson were dating. Decedent was seen as a patient again in June 2013, at which time Dr. Asta reported that Decedent was doing well such that he continued her ongoing treatment.

         On January 23, 2014, Mr. Cotten filed legal proceedings wherein he sought full custody of his son. Mr. Cotten testified that prior to this filing, Decedent seemed "unstable and didn't seem to be her normal happy self." Mr. Cotten also expressed concern regarding Decedent's residing with Dr. Wilson.

         On January 26, 2014, a friend transported Decedent to the emergency room of Nashville General Hospital after Decedent consumed an overdose of Ativan while drinking wine. Hospital tests confirmed that Decedent had alcohol and benzodiazepines in her system. Based on this information and her evaluation of Decedent, Dr. DeAnn Bullock Watkins, the emergency medicine physician on duty, contacted the mobile crisis unit, an emergency psychiatric service, and requested a mental health evaluation for Decedent. Based on the resultant assessment, Dr. Watkins completed a certificate of need, which constituted an involuntary commitment form for Decedent's admission to a psychiatric hospital.

         Decedent called Dr. Wilson from the emergency room, informing him she had been drinking that evening and had "taken a couple of extra sleeping pills and passed out." Additionally, Decedent informed Dr. Wilson that she was being admitted to the Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute ("MTMHI"), a psychiatric hospital. Decedent subsequently contacted Dr. Wilson following her arrival at MTMHI and asked him to pick her up, which he did. Decedent's MTMHI medical records contain a notation stating: "MOD spoken with boyfriend (Dr. Jerry Wilson), and boyfriend assured her safety especially since they lived together. Patient will see her Outpatient Psychiatrist within seven days." Dr. Wilson admitted that he had spoken with a physician at MTMHI, who informed Dr. Wilson that Decedent was depressed and had attempted suicide. At the time, however, Decedent denied that she had attempted suicide.

         Dr. Brooks, the psychiatrist at MTMHI who evaluated Decedent, found that Decedent's relationships with her son and Dr. Wilson were extremely important to her. Upon Decedent's release, Dr. Brooks understood that Decedent would be going home with Dr. Wilson and would follow up with her psychiatrist within seven days. In this regard, Dr. Brooks spoke with Dr. Wilson and Decedent for ten to fifteen minutes and was very firm regarding the need for follow-up care and support.

         By contrast, Dr. Wilson testified that when he picked up Decedent from MTMHI, the treating psychiatrist told him he was comfortable discharging Decedent and made no recommendations as far as safety, outpatient treatment, or weapons. Dr. Wilson admitted that the psychiatrist at MTMHI knew that Dr. Wilson was a psychiatrist as well. Although Dr. Wilson assured the treating psychiatrist that Decedent would follow up with her psychiatrist, he testified that he did not know if Decedent consulted a psychiatrist within seven days of discharge. Decedent did subsequently discuss with Dr. Wilson the fact that she had, in fact, been contemplating suicide at the time of the January 2014 hospitalization.

         In April 2014, Mr. Cotten gained "majority" custody of his and Decedent's son. In June 2014, Dr. Wilson observed that Decedent was suffering crying spells one or two times per week and seemed to be struggling with the loss of custody of her son. Dr. Wilson related that when Decedent experienced "down" days, she wanted to sleep a lot and "ruminated" on the loss of custody. Also in June 2014, Decedent called Dr. Asta in distress and crying. Dr. Asta examined Decedent in his office on June 13, 2014, and reported that Decedent was doing poorly and appeared more depressed; as a result, he increased her medication.

         In mid-August 2014, Dr. Wilson broke off his relationship with Decedent, and she moved from his residence. Dr. Asta documented following an office visit on August 29, 2014, that Decedent's relationship with Dr. Wilson had ended but that Decedent was doing well. During the following months, Decedent and Dr. Wilson nonetheless resumed seeing one another. In addition, Decedent would occasionally stay a day or two with Dr. Wilson. Decedent and Dr. Wilson continued to communicate by telephone, texting, electronic mail, and personal contact, occasionally discussing reconciliation.

         In October 2014, Dr. Wilson acquired a handgun and some ammunition as a gift from his father. Upon receipt, Dr. Wilson placed the gun in one sock and the ammunition in another sock, storing them in unlocked, separate drawers of a china cabinet located in his dining room.

         Decedent continued in her medical care and treatment by Dr. Asta. Upon Dr. Asta's examination on October 14, 2014, he specifically noted that Decedent presented no suicidal ideations. Decedent informed Dr. Asta that she planned to move back in with Dr. Wilson. During Decedent's treatment, Dr. Asta never discussed the relationship between Dr. Wilson and Decedent with Dr. Wilson. Dr. Wilson also never personally discussed Decedent's first suicide attempt with Dr. Asta. In fact, Dr. Asta did not learn of Decedent's January 2014 hospitalization or suicide attempt until after her death. Dr. Asta stated that as Decedent's treating psychiatrist, he would have wanted to know about the January 2014 hospitalization so that he could properly treat Decedent. Dr. Asta also related that he relied on family and friends to have informed him of the suicide attempt, especially because Decedent seemed to be in denial about it. According to Dr. Asta, when he reviewed the notes from the hospitalization, he learned that Decedent was taking lorazepam without his knowledge. Dr. Asta opined that he would have worked on a plan to ensure that Decedent took her medication properly, became more compliant with her treatment, and eliminated alcohol. Dr. Asta also testified that he would have been concerned had he known that firearms were stored in the home.

         Dr. Wilson acknowledged that on October 26, 2014, he showed Decedent his gun in the den at his home while her son was present. Decedent handled the gun while Dr. Wilson explained the gun's history, referring to it as a "lady's purse gun." Dr. Wilson then took the gun into the adjacent dining room, placing it back in the china cabinet. At some point during the evening, Dr. Wilson informed Decedent that he was interested in pursuing a relationship with another woman. According to Dr. Wilson, Decedent became upset and angry, accused Dr. Wilson of "just using her for sex, " and stormed out of the residence.

         Following this incident, Dr. Wilson and Decedent continued to have conversations indicating their mixed emotions about reconciling. Concerning weapons, Dr. Asta testified that a person with a prior suicide attempt, who was depressed and anxious, should not be shown a gun, especially when a relationship was ending. Mr. Cotten testified that his son described the event of October 26, 2014, as one wherein Dr. Wilson "waved" a gun while he and Decedent were "fighting." Shortly following the October 26 incident, Mr. Cotten informed Decedent that he was worried about their son's well-being if she continued to live with Dr. Wilson and that he was considering seeking supervised visitation.

         On approximately November 1, 2014, Decedent contacted Dr. Wilson and requested to stay at his home because she had been evicted from her friend's apartment and had nowhere else to reside. Dr. Wilson allowed Decedent to remain at his home while he was out of town that week. On Wednesday, November 5, 2014, Dr. Wilson briefly returned to his house to stay the night before driving to his parents' residence in Harrogate, Tennessee, the following day. According to Dr. Wilson, Decedent was "in good spirits" when he departed. Dr. Wilson remained with his parents until Sunday, November 9, 2014. It was Dr. Wilson's understanding that Decedent intended to spend that weekend at her father's home in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with her son. Mr. Cotten confirmed that on the Friday prior to her death, Decedent had been scheduled to pick up their son from his parents' house and spend the weekend with him. Although Decedent called Mr. Cotten's mother on Friday and informed her that she was stuck in traffic and would pick up the child on Saturday, Decedent never arrived.

         Dr. Wilson testified that he exchanged text messages with Decedent on that Friday. The communications varied in content from discussing a possible reconciliation to exchanging humorous pictures. The final text received by Dr. Wilson from Decedent was on Sunday morning, November 9, 2014. In the afternoon on November 9, 2014, Dr. Wilson arrived at his home to find Decedent in the bedroom, unconscious, with a gunshot wound to her chest. Dr. Wilson also discovered his gun in the bed near Decedent. Despite Dr. Wilson's call for emergency services, Decedent did not survive.

         On May 4, 2015, Mr. Cotten, acting on behalf of the Estate, filed a complaint in the Williamson County Circuit Court ("trial court"), asserting that Dr. Wilson, as a homeowner, owed a duty to Decedent to properly store and maintain in a safe manner his firearms. Mr. Cotten further alleged that Dr. Wilson was aware of Decedent's "fragile mental state and suicidal tendencies" and knew or should have known that if she had access to firearms, she might harm herself. Mr. Cotten claimed that Decedent's injury was foreseeable and that Dr. Wilson was negligent in keeping firearms and ammunition in locations known and accessible to Decedent.

         By his answer in response, Dr. Wilson admitted that while involved in a dating relationship with Decedent, he had known that she suffered from depression and "other possible psychiatric issues." Although Dr. Wilson acknowledged that Decedent had previously attempted suicide at his residence, he denied owing a duty of care to Decedent or committing any act of negligence. Dr. Wilson subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that the Estate had failed to establish a prima facie case of negligence.

         Following oral argument regarding the motion for summary judgment, the trial court entered its Memorandum and Order on October 21, 2016, wherein the court granted summary judgment in Dr. Wilson's favor. The court determined, inter alia, that Dr. Wilson did not owe a duty of care to Decedent, concluding that it was not foreseeable that Decedent would commit suicide, specifically with Dr. Wilson's firearm, because there was "no evidence supporting the conclusion [Decedent] was a continued risk of suicide from January 2014 to November 2014." The court rejected the Estate's argument that Dr. Wilson owed Decedent a duty, as a homeowner and a gun owner, to protect her from an unreasonable risk of injury. The court noted that Decedent had spoken with Dr. Asta on multiple occasions during the months leading up to her death, and "even [Decedent's] psychiatrist was unaware that she was suicidal." The court further stated: "Nothing in the record suggests behavior on the part of [Decedent] which would have alerted Dr. Wilson to the possibility of [Decedent's] using his guns for harmful purposes."

         The trial court also rejected the Estate's assertion that a duty arose because of a "special relationship" between Decedent and Dr. Wilson. Addressing the Estate's argument that Dr. Wilson had a heightened duty because of his education and experience as a psychiatrist, the court disagreed, determining that no special relationship existed sufficient to impose a duty on Dr. Wilson. The court also determined that because Dr. Wilson was never Decedent's treating physician, he was under no medical duty regarding her mental health.

         The trial court further concluded that the Estate's negligence claim lacked viability due to the absence of causation. Again noting its finding that Decedent's suicide was not reasonably foreseeable, the court determined that Dr. Wilson's conduct was not a substantial factor in bringing about Decedent's death. Rather, the court analyzed the case law regarding suicide and the independent, intervening cause doctrine, determining that none of the exceptions to the doctrine had been shown to exist in this case. The court thus determined that Decedent's suicide was an intervening cause, breaking the chain of causation. The court ...

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