Pompeneo v. Verde Valley Guidance Clinic – 3/24/2011

March 29, 2011

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Affirms Summary Judgment Against Plaintiff Who Sued Clinic for Medical Malpractice Claiming Damages Resulting from Plaintiff’s Commission of Homicide and Attempted Suicide.

Jeremy Pompeneo, a recovering methamphetamine addict, was receiving treatment from the Verde Valley Guidance Clinic for his multiple diagnoses of severe mental illness.  Pompeneo told a therapist on October 17, 2006, that “he gets great pleasure out of thinking of killing” his girlfriend and her ex-boyfriend.  Later that day, Pompeneo stabbed his girlfriend to death and attempted suicide by taking an overdose of medication.  Pompeneo eventually pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.

Pompeneo  sued the Clinic for malpractice and sought damages for lost wages, loss of personal freedom, loss of civil rights, pain and suffering, severe emotional distress, and mental anguish.  The trial court granted the Clinic’s motion for summary judgment.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.  Of the four elements of negligence, only causation and damages were at issue in Pompeneo’s appeal.  First, the Court turned to, and rejected, Pompeneo’s claim that he was entitled to damages for his unsuccessful suicide attempt.  On this question, the Court found Tucson Rapid Transit Co. v. Tocci, 3 Ariz. App. 330, 414 P.2d 179 (1966), and the authorities cited in that case, controlling.  That case involved a claim by a plaintiff that a driver who rear-ended her was responsible for her suicide attempt two days later.  The Court in that case concluded that the trial court should have instructed the jury that damages could not be awarded for the suicide attempt because the accident was not its proximate cause.  Likewise, in this case, the Court said that Pompeneo had “presented no facts to challenge the contention that his attempted suicide was volitional.”  That is, there was no evidence that he was under the influence of medication or that his suicide was “anything other than an unsuccessful act.”

The Court also rejected Pompeneo’s argument that the Clinic’s negligence caused him to commit homicide.  Again relying on Tocci, the Court found “no discernable difference between intentional self harm during a lucid interval and intentional harm to a third person during a lucid interval.”  Not only had Pompeneo failed to present evidence that he was under the influence of medication at the time of the murder, but he had also admitted during his guilty-plea colloquy that he had gotten into a fight with his girlfriend before stabbing her and that the murder was premeditated.  According to the Court, Pompeneo’s intentional conduct “constituted a supervening cause as a matter of law.”

Finally, the Court concluded that Pompeneo’s claims for compensatory damages were not supported by admissible evidence.  Because there was no evidence to prove damages, the Court declined the Clinic’s request to find as a matter of public policy that a plaintiff may not recover damages as a result of his own criminal conduct.

Judge Portley authored the court’s opinion; Judges Downie and Orozco concurred.