Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Is it Manslaughter, Does it Matter if it it's not?

A teen in Massachusetts, Michelle Carter,  has been charged with manslaughter.That story struck me when I saw it, because a legal question in that case is likely to be what duty one has to prevent, or at least not to encourage, another's suicide. 

The Free Dictionary defines "manslaughter" as "the unjustifiable, inexcusable, and intentional killing of a human being without deliberation, premeditation and malice." Manslaughter is not murder, which requires planning before-hand. 

I had just penned this post when I received my March 1, 2015 Florida Bar News. The front page had a story titled "Lawyer Suicide." This describes a recent recognition that lawyer suicides are increasing. The article cites high rates of depression in the profession. It says "lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from depression than non-lawyers." 

I am willing to bet that the numbers get worse when the stress increases. Stress from making payroll, too many cases, accumulated debt, never enough time for everything, work demands conflicting with family. Attorneys tend to take the woes of their clients upon themselves. The client is sometimes in dire straights, and this causes you stress. This likely occurs in the life of many attorneys. You name it, there is much on the stress buffet from which to chose. 

What does this have to do with workers' compensation? It has little to do with workers' compensation specifically. It has everything to do with how people treat one another. That is important in any community, and workers' compensation is a community.

According to Cable News Network, Conrad Roy was 18 years old last summer when he died of "apparent carbon monoxide poisoning." He was found in his automobile. This is not uncommon, according to one source it is the method of thousands of suicides each year. There are even websites that detail how to accomplish this.

In the course of Mr. Roy's experience, he apparently "expressed second thoughts." The CNN article says that he "exited the vehicle and communicated to" Ms. Carter, a friend. He apparently told her that "he was having second thoughts about taking his own life." Ms. Carter apparently responded to this text message and essentially told him to "get back in the car."

The police searched Mr. Roy's cell phone and "discovered hundreds of texts between" the two. They say that "many" of these "contained language from Carter that encouraged Roy to take his own life." The police also fault Ms. Carter for failing to assist Mr. Roy and for failing to notify authorities of his thoughts or concerns.

Beyond the encouragement, the police say that Ms. Carter "guided him in his engagement of activities which led to his death." Ms. Carter denies guilt, and claims to have repeatedly attempted to "console Roy." Her attorney argues that no manslaughter was committed.

In this instance, there will be no winners. Mr. Roy is already dead. Ms. Carter is either a friend left to suffer with guilt and remorse or a criminal off to spend time in a correctional facility, which is no teenager's post-high school goal. That determination will be for the Massachusetts criminal justice system, but it is likely that neither outcome is a "win."

There will always be questions following a suicide. Did anyone know or suspect? Was there something, or something more, that could have or should have been done? There are those who might choose to be guided in daily actions by the analysis of whether a given course is or is not against the law, that is "is it manslaughter?" The law sets a "floor" of basic behavior choices. But whether something is illegal does not answer the question of whether it is right.

This was an instance in which there were apparently some reasonably specific signs that Mr. Roy was in a difficult place. The world will likely never know the full details of his circumstances. I would argue that the details are likely not important except in the context that they were sufficiently serious in his perception to lead him to end his life. Whether others agree or not with his perception, essentially what matters is how he felt.

In another recent story, a teenager received an email from school advising him about some late homework. Thirteen years old, he took a walk. He was found about 150 yards from his home, following a "frantic search." If you stacked up all of my missed and late homework assignments, it would be a huge pile of paper. I am not counselling anyone to ignore their homework, but in the grand scheme of things, it should not be a reason to die. 

Maybe there are "straws" that break the camel's back. Unfortunately, we do not have sound methodology for knowing whether someone is having a bad day or not. We cannot predict how they will react or fail to. 

What we can learn from these stories is that people may be going through challenges. We may see them and we may not. The first story seems to suggest that Ms. Carter knew Mr. Roy was troubled. The State faults her for not reporting this. Whether criminally liable or not, there will be those who will agree Ms. Carter should/could have done something. Keep in mind that she was 17 at the time of Mr. Roy's death. Regardless of how the prosecution plays out, it is likely she will wonder the same thing.

We see people in workers' compensation who are under stress. There are professionals who can provide assistance with that. The March Florida Bar News article provides information on risk factors. Stress is one. It provides some warning signs that might alert us. It concludes with a reminder that the Florida Lawyers Assistance (FLA) is a call away. 

I have been privileged to meet some of the leaders of FLA. They put on some great presentations at Inns of Court and local bar meetings that are well worth the time. Many attorneys think that FLA is just about substance abuse. Know that they can help with that, but their scope is far broader. 

My point in all of this is that stress is real in this community and profession we are in, as well as in the world around us. If it gets too much, get help. If you see someone struggling, stumbling, even falling, reach out to them. This is the least we can do. If someone contacts you and expresses their feelings, don't ever be the one to tell them to get back in the car. Though I have some doubts that doing so is criminal, I have no doubt it is the wrong thing to do. 

By the time I got around to publishing this post, the April 1 Florida Bar News arrived. Above the fold on page one is an announcement of the Young Lawyer's Division promoting health, balance, and wellness. They have some stress-reducing suggestions. I encourage a read. These suggestions may be worth a try, even if you do not feel like you are experiencing much stress. 

I am honored to have been a part of this profession and the practice of Florida workers' compensation. I am privileged to have have known so many of you. You each bring value to the community. If you need help, reach out and get some help. FLA is at 800-282-8981,There are a multitude of other resources available too, and they are just a Google search away.

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