There is a suicide crisis among veterans. Statistics show it; the VA acknowledges it; and, anecdotally, we see it. We get calls about potential suicide cases all the time. The tales are heartbreaking.
These are tough cases and, unfortunately, we cannot take most of the potential suicide cases that come to us. What we look for in such cases is a close temporal relationship between the deficient care and the death. This case we just resolved for $390,000 not only had that close timing, but the veteran actually asked to be admitted to the hospital. The VA healthcare providers declined to do so. Not unexpectedly, he killed himself a couple of days later. Having been in this business for a long time, I don’t shock easily. The records in this case shocked me.
Often, we are contacted about possible suicide cases where the care – or lack of care – is appalling. However, if there is a significant gap between those care events and the death, then the case is a very problematic one. Proving negligence would be easy but demonstrating that that negligence was a proximate cause of the death is another matter. Put simply, suicide cases are difficult ones because, even with the best medical care, predicting individual suicidality is essentially impossible. The medical literature on that point is overwhelming. Hence, most suicide cases have a built-in and very viable causation defense.
Under the Federal Tort Claims Act, lawsuits are tried by a judge. There is no jury. This means that academic or even esoteric technical arguments can have real traction. Sometimes this can work to the benefit of the plaintiff. We’ve seen it plenty of times. On the other hand, in suicide cases it usually works the other way. Federal judges are not typically swayed by distaste at the care provided such that they dismiss or ignore scientific causation arguments.
Sometimes, people get upset when we decline to take their case. This is especially true in suicide cases. It must seem like salt in their wounds. However, we do no one any favors by taking on cases where we don’t have a reasonable chance of getting a recovery for the client. Part of being a lawyer means being able to make such determinations dispassionately (or, at least, mostly dispassionately). We must consider how the evidence is likely to be considered by a judge hearing the case – a judge who likely takes great pride in being dispassionate. In the end, we have an absolute duty to be honest with clients and prospective clients. Sometimes that honesty is not what they want to hear, and it hurts.
Notwithstanding our duty to be direct with clients and prospective clients, lawyers don’t escape the basic human obligation to show kindness. We may have to turn people away and not take their case. We still must treat them with compassion. At our firm, we try. Sometimes we fail. Sometimes it’s difficult. But we always try to remember that those people on the other end of the line have suffered. Their tragedies are real. The absence of a legal remedy does nothing to change that sad but simple truth.
I am glad we were able to help this family. I wish we could help more.