In an 8-to-1 decision, the Supreme Court of Georgia announced Tuesday that it has ruled in favor of former Richmond Hill police officer, Doug Sahlberg, and other city officials, who were sued by the mother of a 14-year-old girl who committed suicide after the officer showed his own daughter photographs from the girl’s earlier suicide attempt.
The suit, filed by attorney Carl Varnedoe on behalf of Laura Lane Maia, the mother of Sydney Sanders, alleged Sahlberg allowed his daughter, a classmate of Sanders, to view photographs of injuries Sanders had inflicted upon herself during a Feb. 14, 2011 suicide attempt. That, according to the lawsuit, led to the photos being revealed to others, including Sanders’ classmates, and ultimately Sanders’ decision to take her own life on April 5, 2011 at the age of 14.
Sahlberg admitted to showing his daughter some of the photos but stated that he produced no hard copies and that no one else saw them. He was punished with a letter of reprimand and the loss of 16 hours vacation time for his actions.
And while Sahlberg testified that he did not print the photos; allow his daughter to make copies of them or show them to anyone else, one of Sander’s classmates said that Sahlberg’s daughter showed her and at least two other classmates photos. When Sanders learned that the photos had been shown among her classmates she was “mortified” and “screaming and yelling and gasping for breath and crying,” Maia said.
The suit, originally filed in February of 2013, went through several rungs along the legal ladder before the Georgia Court of Appeals concluded in March of 2016 that there was a question of fact whether Sahlberg’s actions were the “proximate cause” of Sydney’s suicide, and that the suit should be decided by a jury. A proximate cause is one that directly produces an event and without which the event would not have occurred.
However three judges dissented, stating that, “Maia may not recover for her wrongful-death and survival claims because, under well-established Georgia law, Sanders’ tragic suicide was an unforeseen intervening cause of her death, which absolves Sahlberg and the City from liability for such claims.”
After that the city and Sahlberg appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court, which agreed to review the case to determine whether the Court of Appeals erred “by holding that suicide was not an intervening act that would preclude liability against a negligent tortfeasor (Sahlberg).”
The subsequent high court ruling reverses the decision by the Court of Appeals which would have allowed the lawsuit against Sahlberg and the mayor and city of Richmond Hill to go to trial.
The decision, written by Justice Carol Hunstein, concludes that while Sahlberg’s disclosing the photos to his daughter was wrong and may have contributed to Sanders’s decision to take her own life, “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.”
The Georgia Supreme Court ruling states that “we conclude that [Maia] cannot demonstrate proximate cause and, therefore, reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals.”
Varnedoe said that despite the Supreme Court’s ruling there are still questions that remain unanswered regarding Sanders’ death.
“While we respect the Supreme Court’s decision, it is clear the Court refuses to reconcile Ridgeview Institute, Inc. v. Brandvain …with other suicide precedent. The only mention of Brandvain in the Court’s recent opinion is to cite a general principal of law. As many questions remain and were answered but as Sydney Sanders turns the page, her spirit, her presence, the awareness raised and efforts undertaken to help others that her life inspired shall never dim. Sydney Sanders is the ‘the light of the world; A town built on a hill cannot be hidden,’” he said.
“We believe that the court properly applied the law,” said Ray Smith, attorney for the city of Richmond Hill.
Varnedoe added that the case could now go back to a lower court.
“On remittitur from the Supreme Court then the Court of Appeals, the trial court resumes jurisdiction of the case. The claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress remains to be decided,” he said. “But it will be contested in that the defense believes this claim has already been ruled out.”