California Appeals Court Affirms Ruling for Defendants in Suicide Alleged as Wrongful Death

Cindy K. Hung was found dead at her workplace in October 2010. While the coroner ruled her death a suicide, Cindy’s parents were convinced that their daughter was murdered as part of an ongoing conspiracy by her coworkers. Her parents attempted to pursue claims against various of Cindy’s coworkers. The trial court sustained demurrers (objections) to plaintiffs’ amended complaints without leave to amend as to nearly all individual defendants, which the appeals court previously affirmed. At the end of last month, the California Court of Appeal for the First District affirmed the final demurrers sustained by the trial court as to the remaining five defendants without leave to amend.

Cindy’s body was found on the rooftop of her former office at Tribal Technologies. Believing that various employees murdered Cindy and covered up the crime, plaintiffs filed five amended complaints, alleging assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, negligent supervision and retention, and wrongful death. After a hearing in January 2015, the trial court sustained defendants’ final demurrer to the plaintiffs’ fifth amended complaint. Plaintiffs appealed.

The appeals court first addressed plaintiffs’ negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims. To support the negligence theory, plaintiffs cited a case discussing “direct victim” and “bystander liability.” The later is premised on defendant’s violating a duty owed to people who observe their harmful conduct. The appeals court noted, however, that plaintiffs failed to allege that they were present at the scene when Cindy’s injury occurred.

In a direct victim case, a cause of action for negligently inflicted emotional distress exists where a duty arises from a preexisting relationship. Here, however, plaintiffs did not plead the existence of any preexisting relationship that would impose a duty on Cindy’s employees beyond that owed to the general public.

Pursuant to California’s jury instructions, intentional infliction of emotional distress involves the following elements:  (1) extreme and outrageous conduct by the defendant with the intention of causing, or reckless disregard of the probability of causing, emotional distress; (2) the plaintiff’s suffering severe or extreme emotional distress; and (3) actual and proximate causation of the emotional distress by the defendant’s outrageous conduct. Here, the appeals court held, the appellants failed to plead that any of the alleged conduct was either directed at them or knowingly committed in their presence.

Plaintiffs also cited a Tennessee case holding the tort of “reckless infliction of emotional distress” does not require that the wrongful activity be directed at a specific individual. The appeals court found not only found this case factually distinct, but held that it was bound by California Supreme Court precedent. Thus, it held that respondents’ demurrer regarding the emotional distress claims was properly sustained.

The court next addressed plaintiffs’ general negligence claims. Plaintiffs alleged that the employees owed Cindy a duty not to interfere with the police investigation and the legal process, which they breached when they lied to and mislead the police. Plaintiffs assert that as a consequence of these breaches, Cindy suffered serious injuries and ultimately death. Plaintiffs also alleged their own injuries, including the expense of litigation and “emotional distress.”

The trial court sustained the most recent demurrer to the negligence claim on the basis that plaintiffs had failed to plead causation. Specifically, the trial court stated: “The complaint contains no allegations describing any act by any of [the Respondents] that could be deemed a substantial cause of Cindy’s death.” As plaintiffs provided no additional argument or authority to address this on appeal, the court held that any claim of error was forfeited.

Regarding the claim of negligent supervision and retention, plaintiffs argued that respondents could be held liable as supervisors. However, they cited no authority for this position and failed to acknowledge that the appeals court previously held that they could not state a direct claim for negligent retention and supervision because no duty was owed to them (as opposed to Cindy). In that same opinion, the court also held that a survival cause of action for negligent retention and supervision was precluded by California Code of Civil Procedure section 377.34, which limits recoverable damages for a successor in interest to economic damages incurred prior to death.

Plaintiffs finally argued that the lower court erred in failing to grant its leave to amend. The appeals court held that because plaintiffs failed to address the deficiencies in their pleadings, despite clear directions from the both the lower and intermediate courts, plaintiffs failed to suggest what additional facts could be now be alleged. It is the plaintiff’s burden to demonstrate a that a pleading defect can be cured by amendment. Thus, the court did not abuse its discretion in denying further leave to amend.

For these reasons, the appeals court affirmed judgment for respondents and ordered for them to recover their costs on appeal.

The personal injury lawyers at the Neumann Law Group represent victims of accidents throughout the Los Angeles area. Call us at (213) 227-0001 for a free consultation.

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