Whether the trial court correctly denied summary judgment in a case involving police officers who were (1) responding to a known suicide threat, and (2) collecting human remains in the wake of that suicide.
Walter Hughes had a history of making suicidal threats. His wife, Victoria, left the house because she suspected that Walter had been having an affair. When Walter’s daughters came to the house to retrieve Victoria’s belongings, Walter grabbed a gun and threatened to shoot one of the daughters, then himself. The daughters left and reported the incident at the state police barracks.
Police officers were dispatched, but were not advised of the fact that Walter had threatened his daughters. After speaking with Walter, the officers concluded that he was not, in fact, a threat to himself. However, the officers testified that if they had known of Walter’s threat against his daughter they would have arrested Walter for domestic violence and confiscated his gun. That evening the daughters returned to the house and found a suicide note. Walter, however, was missing. Despite intense searches of the area near the house, including a nearby shell pit, Walter was not located.
Months later, human remains were discovered in the shell pit. Police conducted a search and located clothing, personal items and bones. These items were bagged for processing and the scene was cleared after approximately three hours. The next day Walter’s wife and daughters visited the scene and within minutes discovered other remains including a pelvic bone, an arm bone, vertebrae, rib and finger bones and part of a jaw bone. The family was deeply upset by this discovery. Within a few days, the family also discovered a femur and a shell casing in the same general area.
The resulting claim against the police consists of two parts: (1) a wrongful death claim alleging that the police owed a duty of care to Walter by virtue of his threatened suicide; and (2) a claim alleging that the police mishandled Walter’s remains. The police moved for summary judgment, alleging that they were entitled to qualified immunity. The circuit court denied summary judgment.
To overcome qualified immunity, a plaintiff must prove that a state actor violated a clearly established legal right. The police, as petitioners, argue that there was no "right" to have Walter arrested for his own protection. In any event, the plaintiff here cannot overcome the qualified immunity defense because any duty was owed to the public-at-large and the facts do not give rise to a special relationship. In addition, the police argue that they did, in fact, conduct a reasonable search for Walter’s remains and that there was no duty to conduct a “better” search.
Respondents argue that the question of whether a special relationship arose under the facts presented is for the jury. The police were informed that Walter was, in fact, threatening to kill himself and acknowledged that they were dutybound to protect him when they responded. Regarding the second claim, respondents point out that West Virginia law has long recognized a claim for negligent mishandling of the body. The jury could conclude that the state police failed to conduct a reasonable search for Walter’s remains, proximately causing Walter’s wife and daughters to suffer severe emotional distress.
This is a Rule 20 case. As a matter of practice, the Supreme Court does not identify what issues it regards as being worthy of a new syllabus point. There have been a few recent cases relating to the disturbance of bodies and human remains. My educated guess is that the Supreme Court is interested in addressing this issue further. The issues involving qualified immunity are also interesting and could produce a new syllabus point. Specifically, is a special relationship created when a police officer responds to a known suicide threat?