We’ve previously discussed how a school can possibly be held civilly liable for a teenager’s suicide that was apparently motivated, in significant part, by bullying at school.
Conspicuously absent from that lawsuit was, apparently, any allegations that the children who did the bullying were legally responsible for the victim’s death. Instead, the main legal argument centered around the school’s failure to properly supervise its students, and put an end to the bullying long before it reached the point of driving someone to suicide. The motivations of the victim’s parents for only going after the school aren’t entirely clear, but it’s possible that they believed that the school would be most likely to settle. This is not to suggest, of course, that they’re simply looking for a payday. Any finding or admission of responsibility, even if it’s through a settlement, can be extremely cathartic for the victims of wrongdoing.
Now, however, there is a new wrinkle in bullying and the law: at least 9 students in a rural Massachusetts town have been indicted on criminal charges stemming from the suicide death of a 15-year-old girl, allegedly caused by months of persistent bullying and harassment. It’s important to be mindful of the distinctions between civil lawsuits, and criminal charges. Civil law is not really about allocating moral blame for wrongdoing, or punishing the wrongdoer. Instead, its focus is on ensuring that victims of wrongdoing are compensated for their injuries, by requiring the persons and/or entities most responsible for the injuries are required to pay for them.
Criminal law, on the other hand, is focused squarely on punishing wrongdoing, which necessarily means placing moral blame on the wrongdoer. While the bullies here aren’t being charged with murder or manslaughter (and are instead being charged with criminal harassment, and depriving the victim of her civil rights, which appear rock-solid, based on the details of the case), the tone of the statements issued by prosecutors and the commentary surrounding this event all strongly suggest a sense that these bullies share at least some blame for the girl’s death.
It seems like just a matter of time before an ambitious prosecutor decides that bullies who drove their victim to suicide should be tried for murder or manslaughter. Bullying is outrageous and inexcusable, and those responsible should be held accountable, both civilly and criminally, to the extent that the harm suffered to the victim can be definitively traced to the conduct of the bullies. So, holding bullies criminally responsible for any physical injuries they case, as well as the conduct itself, is perfectly reasonable.
However, we could be going down a slippery slope if a prosecutor ever decides that the causal chain between bullying (or other conduct by a third party) and a suicide is strong enough to warrant murder charges. When charging a person with murder or manslaughter, the causal link between the defendant’s conduct, and the victim’s death must be rock-solid. And for good reason – putting someone in prison for life is serious business, and should only be done when a jury is as sure as humanly possible that they caused the victim’s death.
My question is this: if a person commits suicide, no matter how clear their motivations seem to be, could another person ever be guilty of murder because of it? Think about it – there’s a major intervening cause between the bullying and the victim’s death – the victim’s own decision to take his or her own life. In my last article on this subject, I argued that the causal link is sufficient for civil liability, even with that intervening factor. For criminal liability, I’m no so sure.
In the end, however, I’m glad that prosecutors appear to be using every tool at their disposal to address the problem of bullying. However, as with any anti-crime crusade, it is essential that prosecutors refrain from the urge to overreach, in order to prevent backlash from undermining their long-term efforts, and, more importantly, threatening the rule of law