24, 2017 Session
from the Circuit Court for Williamson County No. 2015-194
Michael W. Binkley, Judge
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
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
Christopher M. Jones and Britney K. Pope, Nashville,
Tennessee, for the appellee, Dr. Jerry Scott Wilson.
R. Frierson, II, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in
which D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and Richard H. Dinkins, J.,
R. FRIERSON, II, JUDGE
Factual and Procedural Background
Shea Cotten 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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 ...