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September 14, 2015

Amazon, UPenn Contest Liability for Student Suicide

Amazon and the University of Pennsylvania have argued in court papers that they cannot be held liable for a student's death by suicide using chemicals she allegedly bought through the online retailing giant because the death was not reasonably foreseeable.


Both parties, which are defendants in Singh v., filed preliminary objections with the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas on Sept. 10, contending the claims against them are not actionable under Pennsylvania law.


The mother of Arya Singh, who used soluble cyanide salts to kill herself in February 2013, sued Amazon, the university and a Thai website that allegedly sold the cyanide through Amazon. Singh's mother, Sujata Singh, further alleged her daughter, who was a nursing student at the time, killed herself two years after she had been sexually assaulted on campus.


In its brief, Amazon argued it cannot be held liable because "intentional suicide is a textbook example of an unforeseeable superseding cause," and the retailer did not have a duty to prevent the unforeseeable death.


"This makes sense given that the mere sale of a product generally cannot impose a legal duty to prevent the misuse of that product," said the brief, which was filed by Conrad O'Brien attorney Howard Klein. "Otherwise, any retailer could be liable for any product that could be intentionally used to commit suicide; under such a regime, a department store could be held liable for a decedent customer's intentional use of a kitchen knife to commit suicide."


The University of Pennsylvania contended in its brief that Pennsylvania does not generally recognize liability claims from suicides unless there is a "special relationship," which Arya Singh and the school did not share.


"Pennsylvania law is clear that a duty to protect an individual from suicide can be found only where a 'special relationship' was formed," said the memorandum supporting the school's preliminary objections. "Here, there is no allegation or suggestion that Arya's relationship with Penn was custodial or that Penn or any other person was aware of Arya's planned suicide, or any suicidal thoughts, threats, or acts."


According to court papers, Singh was sexually assaulted while a freshman nursing student, and after the incident was investigated, no charges were brought against the assaulter, who continued to live on campus.


The complaint linked the alleged assault to behavioral problems Singh began to experience, including being arrested for drinking and missing classes.


Eventually, Singh was investigated for alleged academic misconduct, and placed on a mandatory leave. According to the complaint, within hours of being told that she had to leave university housing, Singh committed suicide.


The complaint said that, in early December 2012, Singh had used a website "created, owned, operated and maintained" by Amazon to buy the cyanide tablets, and Amazon processed the payment.

The complaint noted Amazon changed its policies to block all sales of cyanide in the United States in February 2013, but contended Amazon should have known cyanide was being sold on its site dating back at least to May 2012.


The lawsuit alleges negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent hiring against the university, as well as negligence against Amazon for failing to stop the Thai website from selling banned substances.


The complaint was filed in July, as was a motion for declaratory judgment, which asked the court to find the wrongful death and survival act claims should be heard in state court. Last month, the parties stipulated that the case will not be arbitrated.


In its preliminary objections memo, the university argued the relationship between a university and student generally does not create a duty to control that student's conduct for liability purposes, and the only state court decision to address a school's liability regarding suicide rejected the claim.

The memo cited the 2005 court of common pleas decision in Mahoney v. Allegheny College, and said that case held there was no duty to prevent a suicide when a student had previously been treated at the school's counseling center and had been considered a high risk.


Singh "was not, and had never been, confined or otherwise restricted in her activities; nothing of the sort has been alleged," the school's memo said.


According to Amazon, the unforeseeability of Singh's suicide broke the chain of causation that could support a claim against the retailer.


"Under the circumstances alleged in the complaint, suicide and attempted suicide are not actionable under Pennsylvania law. The reason is straightforward: in order to sustain a tort claim, plaintiff is required to show proximate causation, which must be uninterrupted by an unforeseeable superseding cause," the brief said. "The causal link is not broken only upon death, but also when a person intentionally takes a step to attempt suicide."


The University of Pennsylvania's attorney, Jeremy D. Mishkin of Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads; Sujata Singh's attorney, Stewart L. Cohen of Cohen, Placitella & Roth; and a spokeswoman for Conrad O'Brien all declined to comment.


Max Mitchell can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or Follow him on Twitter @MMitchellTLI.


Reprinted with permission from the September 14, 2015 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2015 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.


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