Skip to main content

Who gets the blame for NFL player's suicide and murder?

By Danny Cevallos, CNN Legal Analyst
updated 2:04 PM EST, Mon January 13, 2014
Jovan Belcher had advanced from an undrafted free agent linebacker to NFL starter for the Kansas City Chiefs and played in every game since 2009. On Saturday, December 1, 2012, the 25-year-old star allegedly killed his girlfriend, then drove to the Chiefs' practice facility and took his own life. After the tragedy, teammate Tony Moeaki tweeted, "One of everyone's favorite teammates including one of mine." Here's a look at his career with the Chiefs and tragic end: Jovan Belcher had advanced from an undrafted free agent linebacker to NFL starter for the Kansas City Chiefs and played in every game since 2009. On Saturday, December 1, 2012, the 25-year-old star allegedly killed his girlfriend, then drove to the Chiefs' practice facility and took his own life. After the tragedy, teammate Tony Moeaki tweeted, "One of everyone's favorite teammates including one of mine." Here's a look at his career with the Chiefs and tragic end:
HIDE CAPTION
'One of everyone's favorite teammates'
'One of everyone's favorite teammates'
'One of everyone's favorite teammates'
'One of everyone's favorite teammates'
'One of everyone's favorite teammates'
'One of everyone's favorite teammates'
'One of everyone's favorite teammates'
'One of everyone's favorite teammates'
'One of everyone's favorite teammates'
'One of everyone's favorite teammates'
'One of everyone's favorite teammates'
'One of everyone's favorite teammates'
'One of everyone's favorite teammates'
'One of everyone's favorite teammates'
'One of everyone's favorite teammates'
'One of everyone's favorite teammates'
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Family of Jovan Belcher sues team, says concussions led him to kill girlfriend and himself
  • Danny Cevallos: Traditionally, law has declined to hold others responsible for a suicide
  • Suicide and murder are acts that might be caused by many different things, he says
  • Cevallos: Society and the law are beginning to accept others can be blamed for suicide

Editor's note: Danny Cevallos, a CNN legal analyst, is a criminal defense attorney practicing in Philadelphia, New York and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He is also an adjunct professor of health care law and ethics.

(CNN) -- As the family of a late Kansas City Chiefs linebacker pursues a lawsuit against his former employer, claiming that effects of multiple concussions caused Jovan Belcher to kill his girlfriend and himself, we are left to consider a larger legal question: How liable can a negligent employer be for a suicide?

Emile Durkheim, the French social psychologist of the early 20th century, observed:

"Each victim of suicide gives his act a personal stamp which expresses his temperament, the special conditions in which he is involved, and which, consequently, cannot be explained by the social and general causes of the phenomenon."

Danny Cevallos
Danny Cevallos

Culturally, we have long-viewed suicide as the most personal of decisions. The law has mostly followed suit.

Legally, suicide is like murder in that it's a specific-intent killing. There are many degrees of intent in criminal law, and specific intent is the highest level. It means the killer acted intending the specific outcome -- the death of the victim.

The only practical difference is the inherent complication in prosecuting the completed suicide. Your defendant is also your victim, and in any event, he is no longer subject to the state's jurisdiction. So then how can we suggest that Belcher's employer negligently caused him to do the most independent, intentional act of all?

The legal question is better framed like this: Negligent parties are generally liable for all the harm that is foreseeably caused by their negligence. When a person is negligent, it means they undertook some activity, and their conduct fell below a standard of care in performing that activity. Sometimes, however, a defendant can act negligently, but the subsequent harm to another person is caused by a completely independent intervening cause. This will break the original chain of causation, absolving the defendant of liability.

Former player's mom sues NFL team

Suppose, for example, the Chiefs were found to be negligent as to Belcher. (The team hasn't commented on the lawsuit.)

Belcher's body exhumed for brain study

Suppose the plaintiff proves all their allegations and then some: Imagine an e-mail surfacing where the team president knowingly and mockingly writes after reviewing medical evidence of concussions: "Time for some concussions in Kansas City!" To which another executive, aware of the potential harm to players, writes: "Is it wrong that I'm smiling?" Of course, no such evidence is known to exist.

But suppose Belcher's family can also show that he suffered concussions and emotional problems as a direct result of the (fictional) team officials' negligence. But then imagine that Belcher's death was actually caused by an errant bolt of lightning in the parking lot. That bolt of lightning -- an "act of God" -- would be considered something unexpected that was wholly unrelated to his employer's negligence. None of us would expect the Chiefs to be liable for Belcher's death by electrocution in this hypothetical.

So what about the alleged murder committed by Belcher? Could the Chiefs be liable? Traditionally, an unforeseeable, willful criminal act that intervenes between the negligent act and an intentional killing breaks the causal connection.

Similarly, courts traditionally held that suicide was an "independent intervening cause," so that there was no liability for negligence that resulted in a suicide. But the times are changing. The recent trend is to permit these cases if the plaintiff can "prove" that the negligence caused the suicide.

This development appears completely inconsistent with centuries of jurisprudence. But it may be very consistent with the current direction of our culture: holding others responsible for our own behavior.

In Missouri, a wrongful death plaintiff has the burden to show that the decedent's death was "a direct result" of a defendant's negligence. More specifically, if the plaintiff can show that the death was the "natural and probable consequence" of the injury that the defendant caused by his negligence, then the plaintiff can win.

Now, this is no easy case to make and likely would require expert medical evidence to draw a scientific relationship between one man's carelessness and another's suicide. Fortunately for the Belcher family and plaintiffs at large, Missouri courts acknowledge that the science, like the law, is increasingly on their team.

According to Missouri courts, modern psychiatry supports the idea that suicide sometimes is a foreseeable result of traumatic injuries. And if a qualified expert takes the stand and tells a jury that, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, a concussion directly caused a suicide, well that jury has something on which to hang a verdict.

We shouldn't be shocked. After all, as a society we've been tinkering with holding people responsible for another's suicide for some time now.

In New Jersey in 2012, Rutgers student Dharun Ravi was convicted of invasion of privacy and more than a dozen other charges by using a webcam to peek (into his own room, that he would have had an absolute right to walk into at any time) at his roommate Tyler Clementi.

When Clementi learned of the immature and cruel prank, he was upset. In gauging Ravi's responsibility, we should have considered the "natural and probable consequence" of Ravi's juvenile acts on Clementi. We should have asked: what would we have expected Clementi to do in this instance? Perhaps we'd expect him to sucker-punch Ravi. Maybe we'd expect Clementi to fling Ravi's laptop out of their dorm window.

But can any of us say the "natural and probable" consequence of Ravi's stunt was Clementi's suicide?

The clever reader will point out that Ravi was not prosecuted for the death of Clementi, and that is true. But let's face it: The main reason Ravi was in criminal court was because Clementi committed suicide. Ravi was prosecuted because of the independent act of a very upset young man. (Clementi's family decided not to file a lawsuit and instead to focus on working with The Tyler Clementi Foundation to support gay and lesbian youths.)

We're entering a new cultural era. Now, when a tragedy occurs, heads must roll, no matter what. Now that appears to include suicide, that most personal, independent decision to end one's own life. Our mind may tell us that the deceased is the only party liable for his suicide. Our grief, however, speaks louder, and it calls out for retribution.

Modern jurisprudence appears to join in the public sentiment; we are moving toward the idea that for every tragedy, every social wrong, every inequity, that someone must be held responsible. Perhaps it's socially cathartic, or perhaps we are devolving to our bloodier Coliseum days, where we are sated as long as a lion eats someone. Even though it goes against centuries of legal precedent, cases such as Ravi's and other civil cases are suggesting a cultural sea change.

When someone commits suicide, it's someone else's fault.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Danny Cevallos.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT