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Webstad v. Stortini

October 21, 1996

RUSSELL R. WEBSTAD, AS PERSONAL ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF SUSAN WEBSTAD (DECEASED, APPELLANT,
v.
JOSEPH STORTINI, RESPONDENT.



Superior Court of Pierce County. Superior Court Docket No. 93-2-01224-7. Date Filed In Superior Court: March 28, 1994. Superior Court Judge Signing: Thomas Swayze.

Petition for Review Denied April 2, 1997,

Written By: Houghton, A.c.j. Concurred IN By: Bridgewater, J. Dissenting: Turner, J.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Houghton

HOUGHTON, A.C.J. -- Susan Webstad committed suicide at Joseph Stortini's residence. Her son, Russell Webstad, as personal administrator of Susan Webstad's estate (Webstad), alleged that Stortini's negligent conduct on the night of the suicide caused Susan Webstad's death. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Stortini, dismissing Webstad's wrongful death and survival actions. Webstad appeals, arguing that issues of fact exist as to Stortini's liability. We find no statutory or common law duty and no "special relationship" giving rise to a duty in this case. We also decline to extend the scope of duty to require that any individual prevent another individual from committing suicide absent a "special relationship." We therefore affirm.

FACTS *fn1

Susan Webstad worked in the Pierce County Executive's office with Stortini, then Pierce County Executive, until mid-1988. At that time, Susan Webstad transferred from the Pierce County Executive's office to the Pierce County Solid Waste Division, where she no longer worked with Stortini. After this transfer, she and Stortini became romantically involved. In October 1989, Stortini revealed the relationship to his wife, and the Stortinis separated. Susan Webstad also told her husband, and the Webstads eventually dissolved their marriage.

The relationship continued for two years, but it eventually deteriorated. During that time, Susan Webstad frequently sought a definite commitment from Stortini. *fn2 Stortini remained in regular contact with her. Susan Webstad's daughter, Ericka Webstad, thought Stortini manipulated her mother by periodically returning to his wife and by not keeping commitments to her.

Susan Webstad had been treated for alcoholism and had made suicidal gestures in the past. Stortini thought that Susan Webstad was an alcoholic and was aware that she had entered an alcoholic rehabilitation center for treatment. According to Stortini, Susan Webstad continued to drink after the treatment. Stortini occasionally drank with her.

Susan Webstad took various prescription medications for high blood pressure. In September 1989, Susan Webstad telephoned Stortini intoxicated, unhappy, saying that she was going to take some pills. Stortini went to her apartment, and he found her intoxicated and passed out. He shook her awake, and she recovered without medical assistance. Stortini conceded in his deposition that it was possible that she made this suicidal gesture because she was upset about their relationship.

In November 1989, Susan Webstad took a nonlethal dose of her blood pressure medicine and alcohol "in the context of an acute relationship crisis." The doctor found her suicide risk insufficient to necessitate further hospitalization but recommended outpatient treatment. Later her doctor prescribed antidepressant medication.

A few days after this incident, Susan Webstad drank alcohol with the antidepressants, she became despondent, and members of her family took her to the hospital. According to the attending physician's report, Susan Webstad told him that she had been "jilted" by the married man with whom she was having an extramarital relationship and that this led to her distress. Another physician examined her and noted that Susan Webstad was having problems with her boyfriend, and was feeling abandoned, lonely, and sad. Her physician summarized her condition as: "alcohol abuse [with] several recent suicide gestures without lethal potential." Ericka Webstad told Stortini about this incident.

Stortini's secretary, a friend of Susan Webstad's, told Stortini that Susan Webstad called her when she was intoxicated to talk about suicide and about her unhappiness with his lack of commitment. When she was intoxicated, Susan Webstad would tell Stortini that his on-again, off-again approach to their relationship and his failure to make a commitment greatly upset her. According to Stortini, she "made comments [about suicide to Stortini] quite often," such as "I just don't want to live." And she told him "that she had a way of taking her life." Stortini assumed this was a reference to taking pills. The issues of suicide or pill taking and their relationship came up only when Susan Webstad was drinking.

On August 25, 1991, Stortini and Susan Webstad spent the evening together at his home. When Susan Webstad arrived, Stortini thought that she appeared to have been drinking, although she did not have an excessively intoxicated manner. Stortini said that Susan Webstad drank only a few sips of his beer. *fn3

The two picked berries, ate the dinner that Susan Webstad brought, and then watched the movie that Stortini had rented, which was about divorced people who remarried happily. Following the movie, they talked about its theme. The conversation turned to their relationship and to Susan Webstad's continued desire that Stortini commit to their relationship. Stortini, however, told Susan Webstad that he was unwilling to divorce his wife in order to make a commitment and wanted to restore his marriage if possible. According to Stortini, Susan Webstad responded "obviously . . . you don't want me. . . . know[] how to take care of that." *fn4

Susan Webstad then got up, retrieved her purse, and went into the kitchen. Stortini followed her into the kitchen, where he saw a pill container on the sink and a couple of pills dissolving in the sink. Stortini asked her how many pills she had swallowed. She replied 8 or 10. He thought they were her blood pressure pills. He told the police that he remembered her daughter's telling him that Susan Webstad had previously gone to the hospital and had her stomach pumped after taking blood pressure pills, but that she was fine in a couple of days. According to Stortini, he asked Susan Webstad to go with him to the hospital or to let him call 911 dispatch, but she said no. She said that she had "taken pills before," that she was "going to be okay," and that she was "fine."

Over the next half to one hour, Stortini thought that Susan Webstad appeared to be fine. She and Stortini sat down and talked. Susan Webstad then went to the bathroom, and Stortini followed her and found her kneeling over the toilet trying to "spit up." She again declined his suggestions to go to the hospital or to call 911 dispatch, and asked for a glass of milk to help her vomit. She then said she needed fresh air, and they moved to the open patio door where Stortini placed a cool towel on her forehead. Susan Webstad then suggested that Stortini call the Group Health pharmacy for advice. Stortini went to the kitchen to find the telephone number but could not locate it. He returned to the place where Susan Webstad had been sitting and saw her lying on the floor unconscious. Stortini then slapped her face to try to revive her. When Susan Webstad did not respond, Stortini immediately called 911 dispatch.

When Stortini called 911 dispatch at about 1:45 a.m., he asked that aid units respond without lights and sirens. As an elected official, he was concerned about publicity. He told the police that he did not want "a big scene." The aid units responded within 5 to 10 minutes, with lights and sirens, and took Susan Webstad to the hospital. She died at about 9 a.m. on August 26.

Stortini issued a press release responding to the event. Both Pierce County and King County police officers interviewed Stortini.

The Pierce County Medical Examiner ruled that Susan Webstad's death was a suicide by Verapamil overdose. Verapamil was one of the medications Susan Webstad was taking for high blood pressure. The King County Medical Examiner also reviewed the case and believed that this was a "'suicidal gesture that went wrong'" and that Susan Webstad had "'no true appreciation of the ultimate consequence.'"

Webstad brought this action against Stortini, claiming that his negligent conduct on the night of the suicide caused Susan Webstad's death. Webstad alleged that Stortini was negligent both in telling Susan Webstad he would not commit to her, knowing of her suicidal tendencies, and in handling the situation after she ingested the pills.

The trial court granted summary judgment dismissing Webstad's claims. The trial court concluded that, under the facts of this case, Stortini did not owe a duty to Susan Webstad in connection with her suicide, nor did his conduct or omissions proximately cause her death. Webstad appeals.

ANALYSIS

We review a trial court's grant of summary judgment de novo and engage in the same inquiry as the trial court. Lauritzen v. Lauritzen, 74 Wash. App. 432, 437-38, 874 P.2d 861 (citing Wilson v. Steinbach, 98 Wash. 2d 434, 437, 656 P.2d 1030 (1982)), review denied, 125 Wash. 2d 1006 (1994). "Summary judgment is properly granted when the pleadings, affidavits, depositions and admissions on file demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Lauritzen, 74 Wash. App. at 437 (citing CR 56(c); Kesinger v. Logan, 113 Wash. 2d 320, 325, 779 P.2d 263 (1989)). We consider all facts and reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and uphold the grant of summary judgment only if, given all of the evidence, reasonable persons could reach but one Conclusion. Lauritzen, 74 Wash. App. at 437 (citing Scott v. Pacific W. Mountain Resort, 119 Wash. 2d 484, 502-03, 834 P.2d 6 (1992); Kesinger, 113 Wash. 2d at 325).

"In order to prove actionable negligence, a plaintiff must establish: (1) the existence of a duty owed to the complaining party; (2) a breach of that duty; (3) injury; and (4) that the claimed breach was a proximate cause of the resulting injury." Lauritzen, 74 Wash. App. at 438 (citing Hansen v. Friend, 118 Wash. 2d 476, 479, 824 P.2d 483 (1992); Pedroza v. Bryant, 101 Wash. 2d 226, 228, 677 P.2d 166 (1984)). The threshold determination in any negligence case, however, is whether the defendant owed a duty of care to the plaintiff. Lauritzen, 74 Wash. App. at 438. "Whether a defendant owes a duty of care to a plaintiff is a question of law." Lauritzen, 74 Wash. App. at 438 (citing Hansen, 118 ...


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