Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

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

By Danny Cevallos, CNN Legal Analyst
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2045 GMT (0445 HKT)
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
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2331 GMT (0731 HKT)
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT