The family of a Lake County man who committed suicide amid a rash of misfortune will be allowed to proceed with their wrongful death claim against their former landlord, after a state appeals panel held the fact the man killed himself does not, by itself, absolve the landlord of potential liability for allegedly pushing him to the brink.
On June 11, the Second District Appellate Court reversed the ruling of Lake County Circuit Court Judge Margaret J. Mullen, who had dismissed two counts – a wrongful death claim and a survival action - of a five-count complaint the family of Neslyn Caceres brought against Libertyville-based real estate firm, The DeBruler Company.
The opinion was delivered by Justice Donald C. Hudson, with justices Robert D. McLaren and Ann B. Jorgensen concurring.
The justices essentially determined that the liability of a defendant in a wrongful death suit is not diminished or eliminated simply because victims in such cases may have died at their own hands.
The panel determined in this particular case that a jury could consider whether intentional actions alleged to have been committed by the management company inflicted sufficient emotional distress to cause Caceres to commit suicide.
“The trial court flatly held that, under Illinois law, there is no cause for action for wrongful death via suicide, or survival claims,” Hudson wrote for the panel. “We disagree with the trial court.”
The case centers on the events surrounding the suicide of Caceres, who died in June 2011.
About six weeks earlier, court documents indicate Caceres and his wife, Maria Turcios, Honduran immigrants who spoke little English, signed a one-year lease with The DeBruler Company for an apartment in Park City, near Waukegan, in Lake County. The couple intended to live in the apartment with two of their three children.
However, just 10 days after they moved in, the couple received an eviction notice, and were given 30 days to leave, as the landlord wished to demolish the building in June, the opinion states.
The couple, believing the eviction violated their lease, refused to move.
According to the complaint brought by Caceres' wife, Maria Turcios, after June 10, 2011 The DeBruler Company “allowed demolition to proceed around Maria’s unit,” including tearing “into the outside walls of the building in which Maria’s unit was located, and then began to demolish the units surrounding Maria’s unit.”
On June 14, Caceres told Turcios “he could not tolerate the situation any longer," according to the panel's opinion that notes he committed suicide the next day in the couple's apartment.
Despite Caceres’ death, Turcios alleged the company still moved ahead with demolition on June 22, even as she and her children attempted to remove their personal belongings. During the move, her suit claims “an enormous rain storm occurred and ruined most of Maria’s family’s belongings."
Turcios then sued the management company, claiming its actions were the cause of Caceres’ death, coming “in reckless pursuit of an economic goal” and were “extreme and outrageous conduct which cannot be tolerated in a civilized society.”
Turcios' suit also included counts for wrongful eviction, breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
In response, the company asked the court to dismiss the counts dealing with Caceres’ death, arguing, that because he killed himself, they could not be held liable for his death.
While the circuit judge agreed, the appeals court did not, noting Turcios did not allege acts of negligence, but rather an “intentional tort.”
Hudson noted the panel's ruling does not address the plaintiffs’ actual evidence or their chances of success, leaving that to the trial court, but that the case should not have been dismissed over this particular matter.
“The fact that a victim commits suicide in no way limits a defendant’s liability for its actions where the emotional distress is a substantial factor in causing the suicide,” Hudson wrote.