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Suicide is never painless, but who's to blame?
Posted by I. Nelson Rose
on 21 November 1999, at 10:30 p.m.
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Suicide Is Never Painless,
But Who's To Blame?
The anti-gambling movement is attempting to show that legal gaming creates
so many social problems that it should be outlawed.
A standard argument is that more gambling means more bankruptcies, which
means more suicides.
The world is so complicated, that it is often impossible to know whether
one thing "causes" another. If that there has been an increase in
bankruptcies, or suicides, over the last few years -- was this caused by the
proliferation of gambling, or by the increasingly easy availability of
credit, or by a hundred other factors?
It is often up to legislators and voters to decide these issues. But the
political process never really answers important questions of fact.
Instead, the debate is resolved by taking a vote.
Judges are not as fortunate. They have to determine the truth, based on
the law and actual facts of a real case.
For example, a judge in Mississippi had to rule on whether a casino could
have caused a suicide.
On May 7, 1996, James Shamburger killed himself in his apartment in
Slidell, Louisiana. His widow sued Grand Casino, claiming the Mississippi
casino was responsible for the suicide.
In most states, the case would have been dismissed almost immediately.
Under what is known as the American rule, suicide breaks the chain of
causation. This is particularly true in states like Mississippi, where
suicide is still recognized as a common law crime.
Even if a defendant had done something to cause harm, the law holds that
the person who commits suicide is a new and independent cause, a free agent,
who has created his own injury.
Federal Judge Dan M. Russell, Jr., found that Mississippi law recognizes an
exception to the American rule: The estate of a suicide victim may recover
if the defendant committed an intentional, outrageous act which produced "a
mental illness resulting in an irresistible impulse to commit suicide."
The tests are difficult to meet. The mental illness must be so great that
the victim "must not be in control of his faculties, or be able to discern
the nature nor understand the consequences of his own actions." A mental
"condition," such as depression or stress, is not enough. The defendant's
act must result in a mental illness which makes the suicide involuntary.
Further, it is not enough that the defendant acted with malice. The
conduct must be "so outrageous in character, and so extreme in degree, as to
go beyond all possible bounds of decency."
Was Grand responsible for this death? Another way of asking the same
thing: should the casino executives have done anything different?
The attorney for Shamburger's widow argued that fear of going to jail
caused Shamburger to be unable to resist the impulse to kill himself.
Judge Russell found there was no evidence supporting this theory.
It was uncontested that Shamburger had had trouble with gambling, drinking
and personal relationships for years. His optical business failed in the
summer of 1994.
In July 1994 Shamburger wrote markers totaling $3,000 for chips, on a
checking account that had already been closed. After the checks bounced,
Grand employees wrote and called Shamburger. When he failed to make any
effort to make the checks good, Grand executives turned them over to the
Office of the District Attorney for Harrison County, Mississippi, under the
Mississippi Bad Check Statutory Scheme.
The D.A. sent Shamburger letters, using forms required by law.
Rather than pay, Shamburger showed up with his lawyer at the D.A.'s office
on January 19, 1995, and asked to be arrested. But, no one would arrest
The ploy actually worked. Shamburger never received another communication
from either the casino or the D.A.
In March 1995 Shamburger and his wife filed a petition in bankruptcy. They
listed the $3,000 owed Grand, along with approximately $220,000 in other
debts. As the judge noted, "The debt to Grand thus constituted less than
1.5 percent" of the total owed.
Besides not being arrested when he tried to turn himself in on the Grand
debt, Shamburger had other run-ins with the law. In April 1996, only a few
weeks before his suicide, Shamburger pleaded guilty to writing a bad check
to a merchant in an unrelated incident. He made restitution and served no
Even if Shamburger feared jail, what did the casino executives do that was
Plaintiff's attorney argued that they were wrong to file a criminal
complaint, when the casino had agreed to hold the markers. The only
problem: The evidence showed the agreement was that the checks would not be
held, but rather deposited in his bank.
With many deaths, there is a natural tendency to try and place blame. But,
the law recognizes that a legal business, even a casino, does not "cause" a
suicide when it tells a prosecutor that one of its customers has written a
bad check on a bank account that he had already closed.
[Professor Rose can be reached at email@example.com]
I. Nelson Rose
Professor of Law, Whittier Law School
Home Office: 17031 Encino Hills Drive
Encino, California 91436
Fax: (818) 788-3104
Web Site: www.GamblingAndTheLaw.com
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