Suicide and Legal Liability
posted by Gerard Magliocca
A recent study indicates that more Americans committed suicide last year than were killed in car accidents. This could be good news for auto safety, but it may also be bad news about the suicide rate. This raises an interesting question–should the law do anything directly to discourage suicide?
At common law, suicide was a crime. The penalties ranged from prison for attempted suicide that failed, being barred from burial in a cemetery, or escheat of the suicidal estate. These sanctions were abolished in the twentieth century (at least in Anglo-American law). A libertarian argument can be made that suicide should not be a crime because we have a right to end our life. (Assisted suicide presents more problems.) Or you might say that suicide is a mental health issue and hence should not be punished at all. Or you could say that punishing suicide only hurts the victim’s surviving family members.
Still, I wonder if the current hands-off posture is a little too sanguine. Maybe there are some people who could be discouraged from suicide by legal consequences. Complete escheat of the victim’s estate to the state is rather harsh, but what about partial escheat? In effect, what if we said that you will pay a higher estate tax if you commit suicide? Would that be so wrong? Not all problems have a legal solution, but is this one of them?