Supreme Court: Landlords not liable in suicide of man being evicted from apartment building being demolished

By Jonathan Bilyk | May 21, 2015

The family of a Lake County man who committed suicide amid a turbulent eviction process begun by a landlord looking to demolish the apartment building in which he and his family lived will be barred from suing the landlord for wrongful death, after the Illinois Supreme Court ruled an appellate court was wrong in finding the family should be allowed to argue the suicide was a “foreseeable” consequence of the landlord’s actions.

Thursday, the state high court overturned the June 2014 decision of the Illinois Second District Appellate Court, which had ruled in favor of Neslyn Caceres in their dispute with Libertyville-based real estate company, The DeBruler Company.

The unanimous opinion was authored by Justice Mary Jane Theis.

“We believe it is the rare case in which the decedent’s suicide would not break the chain of causation and bar a cause of action for wrongful death, even where the plaintiff alleges the defendant inflicted severe emotional distress,” the justices wrote. “The case before us is not one of those rare cases.”

The case arose following Caceres’ June 2011 suicide.

Earlier that year, 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 the Colonial Park Apartments complex in Park City, near Waukegan. 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.

Turcios said, based on legal advice they had obtained, believed the eviction violated their lease, and refused to move.

According to the complaint brought by Caceres’ wife, Maria Turcios, on 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.”

Turcios said her husband then told her he “could not tolerate the situation any longer,” and he committed suicide the next day.

Turcios then sued DeBruler, alleging intentionalinfliction of emotional distress, wrongful death and wrongful eviction, among other counts.

In response, DeBruler moved to dismiss the death-related counts, arguing they could not be held liable for Caceres’ death because he died at his own hand.

Lake County Circuit Court Judge Margaret A. Mullen sided DeBruler, dismissing the wrongful death-related counts.

On appeal, however, a panel of Second District justices disagreed with the trial judge’s finding.

“The trial court flatly held that, under Illinois law, there is no cause for action for wrongful death via suicide, or survival claims,” the appellate panel wrote in its opinion. “We disagree with the trial court.”

DeBruler appealed that decision to the State Supreme Court, and, in an opinion released Thursday, the court said Mullen’s ruling was more persuasive, based on precedent.

“Despite the clear differences among the standards (in precedential case law,) plaintiffs contend that their holdings can be distilled down into a single principle of tort liability: If the defendant intends to harm the plaintiff, the defendant is liable for whatever consequences follow, including suicide, whether foreseeable or not, as long as the defendant’s conduct was a substantial factor in bringing about that harm,” the justices wrote.

However, the justices said, the plaintiffs need to do more to prove their case and establish a “chain of causation” leading to the suicide.

“In other words, a plaintiff must plead facts demonstration that the suicide was foreseeable, i.e., that it was a likely result of the defendant’s conduct.”

In this case, the Supreme Court justices said those facts were lacking.

They noted the landlords had offered nine days of free rent at the beginning of June 2011 and had offered the couple free rent at a different apartment unit for the remainder of the month, as well. And the landlords offered an additional $2,000 incentive to persuade the couple to move.

Further, the justices noted DeBruler warned the couple demolition would begin in June, and the couple chose to stay.

“Without regard to whether these allegations could support a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, an issue that was not raised in the trial court, we conclude that these allegations are insufficient to allow plaintiffs’ wrongful death action to proceed,” the justices wrote. “As a matter of law, (Caceres’) suicide was not a reasonably foreseeable result of (DeBruler’s) alleged conduct in breaking the lease and pressuring the couple to vacate the apartment.”

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