Suicide: Legal Question

Today at lunch I was discussing with a colleague his previous marriage. He said his ex had tried to commit suicide twice. The second time he considered not calling for help and just letting her die (he didn’t).

Question is, if someone knows that another person is attempting suicide (in the example took a full bottle of pills) and doesn’t contact help or attempt to rescue that person, have they somehow committed a crime? If so, what crime? Doesn’t seem like murder, maybe voluntary manslaughter, or just an accessory to suicide (if suicide is a crime)?

Okay, I hate to bump this, but I’m really disappointed in you folks. Someone must have an idea on this one. The Teemings don’t do very well on my questions. Should I dumb them down for you?

IANAL…OK, someone is in trouble or danger of some kind, are you legally obliged to offer assistance? I don’t think so, although it may be the case when the person in trouble is legally consisdered dependant on you.

I think this would be considered at least manslaughter and possibly third-degree murder in most states–allowing ones negligence to lead to the death of a person seems to fit that bill. There’s not a jury in the US that wouldn’t call you a filthy beast and throw the heaviest penalty at you.

Picture this: there’s a man hanging by his ankles from a fifty-story building. The rope is fraying. He’s hanging right beside your window and it’s ridiculously easy to reach out and pull him to safety. You don’t do it. The rope snaps and the man becomes sidewalk stroganoff. That would be considered either manslaughter or murder (but not first- or second-degree, unless you’re the reason he’s hanging up there in the first place) in the US, as I understand the law. The same thing would apply to a suicide attempt.

I have no clue how it is in Austria, though.

I’m not in Austria, my location is a reference to an email based Diplomacy game played with other Dopers. Thanks for the response. Do you have a legal background at all? FWIW the incident I described in the OP (probably) happened in Ohio.

I think you have to take a few things into consideration with the specific case you mentioned 1) He did nothing to put his wife into her situation…she took that upon herself 2) Even if he did call the EMT’s, there is no certainity that they would have been able to save her…there is alot of uncertainity with the conditions. Depending on the situation (prolonged health issues, such as a losing battle with cancer, or a degenerative disease), I think it would be considered much differently.
There was a case a few years ago, when I man said he wanted to kill himself. His “friend” said “Go ahead” and gave him a gun. The man then did commit suicide. The “friend” was convicted of involuntary manslaghter,I think, and recieved a light sentence.

You don’t have to dumb down your questions for me, but sheesh, gimme a chance to wake up and see them. Most of us are on the other side of the freakin’ world here, y’know.

I can’t tell you about Vienna, but I can tell you about the common law answer to your question. Lodrain is mistaken: if you did nothing to place the person in their predicament, and no special relationship exists between the two of you, you don’t have to do a thing to come to the person’s aid. Let’s say you come across a person with their foot stuck in the train tracks. You could easily help them out an save their life. Instead, you sit beneath a tree to enjoy watching the guy get hit by a train. At common law and absent any statute to the contrary, no crime. The law doesn’t impose any affimative duty on you to come to another’s aid.

Now, actually aiding someone to commit suicide may be murder or manslaughter, but merely learning someone is going to commit suicide and doing nothing generally isn’t a crime at common law. Even though it may not be criminal, it’s reprehensible, and I would urge anybody in this situation to do the right thing.

AFAIK this would be more like voluntary euthanasia.

eg, it is illegal to sit and hold your wife’s hand and watch her die after she has taken an overdose of pills in most countries.
switzerland and the netherlands being obvious exceptions.

so no, if he is in the house, and is aware his wife has taken an overdose he WOULD be charged with a crime.
even if he did not administer the drug.

pravnik is right. The rest of you are wrong (at least under U.S. law). As pravnik, traditionally in U.S. law there is no obligation to help someone in danger if you did not put them in the danger – even if you could easily help them with no skin off your nose at all. The exception to this rule is for people in a “special relationship” – once in which the bystander has some power over and responsibility for the one in trouble. The classic special relationship is between parents and children, but many other types may exist in a given case such as school official-student, minister-congregant, even doctor-patient in some circumstances. As a general rule, when someone assumes control over someone else, the controller is charged with a concommitant responsibility over the controlled.

Do husbands and wives have this type of special relationship? It’s a tough question, one that will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and from case to case depending on the type of relationship the couple had. If a woman had severe emotional problems of which her husband was aware, it seems likely that a special relationship might exist as he would have already had to be her caretaker and guardian for some time. However, it is not a question that could be answered without more knowledge of the facts and the law of your specific jurisdiction.

–Cliffy, Esq.

P.S. I am not licensed in your jurisdiction, I have very little information about the facts in this case, and I do not have experience in this area of the law. I am not competent to represent you in this matter. If your question is motivated by anything more than idle curiosity, you should consult an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction, fully aware of all relevent facts, and expert in this substantive area of the law. I am none of these things. You are not my client. I am not your lawyer.

Nice legal wording at the end there, Cliffy. The incident happened years ago. The question was asked out of idle curiosity and out of a desire to stamp out ignorance. Personally, I’d err on the side of helping someone even if it put me in legal jeopardy. Right is right, the law not withstanding.


irishgirl brings up an interesting point. Although she’s wrong under traditional U.S. law, there may indeed be states where watching a suicide is made illegal by statute. Legislatures are allowed to modify common law rules if they think a new rule makes for better policy, and given all the discussion about assisted suicide over the last decade+, I would not be surprised to discover that many legislatures had indeed outlawed such behavior by placing an affirmative duty on people (or at least spouses) to prevent suicides of which they are aware. (I don’t know that this has happened – I have no idea – but this is well within the power of the state legislature should it choose to so act.) However, outside of such a statutory duty being imposed or a special relationship being found (which in these circumstances seeems to me unlikely), a husband would not be charged with a crime for letting his wife expire. Note however, that if he participated in the effort – either by administering the poison or even by procuring it – then he would be an active participant, not a mere passive observer. In that case, he may well be liable for criminal charges and civil liability.

–Cliffy, again

This brings up another point worth mentioning. As we’ve stated, under traditional law a person has no obligation to help, but if the observer begins to help, then he must follow through, and if any injury to the assistee occurs because the rescuer is negligent is going to subject him to tort liability.


Damn, Cliffy…I just LOVE you lawyers.

“The “Good Samaritan” doctrine is a legal principle that prevents a rescuer who has voluntarily helped a victim in distress from being successfully sued for “wrongdoing.” The purpose of such laws is to keep people from being reluctant to help a stranger who needs assistance for fear of possible legal repercussions, in the event that a mistake in treatment is made inadvertently by the rescuer.”

According to the site, California has laws written which apply to physicians, while those of Nevada and some other states apply to everyone.

Overview of various states “Good Samaritan” laws.

I’m completely ignorant of how other countries handle these situations.


Yeah, but Cliffy, what if I was of the short-attention-span type and didn’t get to read your disclaimer, could I still sue you?

I’m not a lawyer, but i’ve seen one on TV. From Law & Order isn’t there such a crime as Depraved Indifference to Human Life? This sounds like it would fit.

“Depraved indifference” is a term of art and refers only to an action (not mere passive observation) which is not intended to kill, but is so reckless and so heedless of the fact that it could lead to the victim’s death that anyone who does it can be guilty of murder even tho’ there was no intent to kill. Yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre might qualify if someone ends up trampled to death – even if the yeller were a mere prankster, no one with any ounce of sense could fail to be aware of how dangerous such an action is. It still requires a positive act as opposed to mere observation of something going on.


IIRC, Shibbs is located in the fine state of Ohio. Or was it state of intoxication? Perhaps denial?

Anywho, here’s a quote from State v. Sage, 510 N.E.2d 343 (1987)

And because Cliffy always goes that extra step, which I think is a blatant attempt to make the rest of us lawyers look bad, I’ll add the footnotes:


Note than in none of these cases is refusing to offer aid a crime. So there. Oh, and insert here all that lawyerly gobbleygook that Cliffy had at the end of his post as a disclaimer.

Probably not – the general rule is that a lawyer can be held accountable if a reasonable person could rely on his advice. A reasonable person seeking legal advice can be presumed to have at least made an attempt to read the whole response. He can’t necessarily be presumed to have understood something complicated, but any reasonable person seeking advice would have at least read everything. I quite clearly state that I’m not your lawyer and that I am not competent to render legal advice on the question, so anyone who read those words and nonetheless believed I was giving competent legal advice is per se unreasonable.


P.S. The disclaimer in my original post in this thread applies to this post as well.