In this judgment, the claimants claimed in delict for loss of support arising from the death by suicide of the claimants’ husband and father.
The deceased had been involved in a motorcycle accident in which he collided with another vehicle driven by a driver insured in terms of the Road Accident Fund Act. As a result of the collision, he sustained multiple orthopaedic injuries to his body. Liability was admitted.
Before his road accident fund claim was finalised , he committed suicide.
The appellants had to prove that on the probabilities the deceased’s suicide was a direct or proximate result of the accident.
The court set out the applicable legal principles on causation, acknowledging the requirement that both factual and legal causation has to be established. Our courts recognise that a rigid application of the “but for” test may sometimes yield unpalatable and unfair results and have cautioned against applying rigid deductive logic. The common law test is accordingly applied flexibly, recognising that common sense may have to prevail over strict logic.
The enquiry into legal causation follows factual causation. It asks whether a sufficiently close relationship exists between the factual cause and the consequent loss to give rise to legal liability. Is the loss too remote for the factual cause to also be the legal cause?
On the facts it was common cause that the deceased suffered severe bodily injuries due to the collision which significantly impaired him physically. Although he was positive initially, he later lost his joy in life. The uncontested evidence was that the injuries sustained by the deceased in the accident had a profound physical, emotional and psychological effect on him.
The court said that the appellants did not need to prove that the deceased suffered from a psychiatric condition at the time of the suicide. All they were required to prove was a sufficient causal link between the sequelae of the injuries and the suicide of the deceased.
The court said that all the evidence pointed in one direction only. The deceased was depressed due to the serious orthopaedic injuries he sustained in the motor vehicle collision. He was depressed, experienced unending excruciating pain and could not think clearly about everything. His ability to make an informed judgment was diminished and impaired, and accordingly he committed suicide.
The court found that there was a clear causal connection between the injuries and the sequelae suffered by the deceased and the relevant suicide.
The court held, having regard to and on an analysis of the judgment in Road Accident Fund v Russell 2001 (2) SA 34 (SCA) and discussions on a new intervening cause, that there were no factors unrelated to the injuries suffered by the deceased in the accident which led to the deceased’s suicide.
No evidence was adduced to support a finding that a cause unrelated to the accident prompted the deceased to commit suicide. The court held that the deceased would not have committed suicide but for the accident.
While the deceased’s act may have been deliberate, the court was of the view that the weight of the evidence presented proved on the probabilities that the deceased’s ability to make an informed judgment was compromised and impaired to a material degree by the unending excruciating pain, stress-related issues, and depression caused by the consequences of the motor vehicle accident. Accordingly, although the suicide was deliberate, it did not amount to a new intervening cause.
Applying the flexible approach in determining the legal causation, the court held that it was eminently reasonable, fair and just to hold that the evidence presented at the trial established the requirements for causation. The appeal succeeded and the defendant was liable to compensate the claimants for such damages as she could prove.
The judgment does not find application in relation life insurance policy exclusions, absent a specific wording. Suicide is death. Most life policies now only exclude suicide for the first two years after inception of the policy, but non-disclosure of specific circumstances may be relevant.