The Georgia Supreme Court voted 8-1 in a decision announced today in favor of the city of Richmond Hill and former Richmond Hill Police Department Det. Doug Sahlberg in a wrongful death lawsuit stemming from the 2011 suicide of a teenage girl.
Attorneys for the city and Sahlberg appealed to the high court after Bryan County Superior Court Judge Robert Russell ruled that the case deserved a jury trial. The city appealed that decision in 2016 to the Georgia Court of Appeals, but was denied.
An attorney for the 14-year-old who committed suicide six years ago argued before the Georgia Supreme Court in February that the city and Sahlberg were responsible for her death because of the officer’s actions.
The attorney for the city and Sahlberg, however, argued that state law holds that suicide is an individual’s act and that another can be held responsible in only limited circumstances.
The original suit, filed by Laura Lane Maia, says her daughter, Sydney Sanders, who was 14 at the time, attempted suicide in February 2011. During the investigation, Sahlberg took photos of the child’s wounds. He later, while at home, called them up on a computer from his work files and showed them to his daughter, court papers say.
In the meantime, after Sanders had been hospitalized for a time and reportedly declared stable, she returned to school but perceived that her classmates knew about her situation and the photographs. She then took her own life on April 5, 2011.
The original suit claims Sahlberg’s actions led to her classmates knowing about her attempted suicide. Sahlberg’s daughter and Sanders attended the same school.
In the high court’s opinion, which can be read at http://bit.ly/2r7Cc2c, Justice Carol Hunstein wrote “We agree with Judge Dillard that ‘Sahlberg’s flagrant violation of RHPD’s policy regarding confidentiality was undoubtedly wrongful and it may indeed have been a factor in Sanders’s tragic decision to take her own life.’ However, under longstanding Georgia law, Sanders’s suicide acted as an intervening cause that extinguished any causal connection between Sahlberg’s wrongful conduct and Sanders’s death, and Appellee’s claims fail.
“Accordingly, Appellants were entitled to summary judgment in their favor, and the court of Appeals erred when it affirmed the trial court’s denial of that motion.”
Sahlberg resigned from the police department in February.