A West Virginia family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the state police, alleging that the police failed to properly protect a Berkeley County man. Walter Hughes went missing for several months in 2012 before he was finally found dead in November.
Hughes’s widow and children claim that the state police should have taken Hughes into custody after he expressed a desire to kill himself. The events leading to the lawsuit began unfolding in April 2012, when Hughes’s widow, Victoria, discovered that he was having an affair. Victoria Hughes moved out of the house, then a week later returned with her daughters to retrieve some clothing. Walter Hughes saw them and held a gun to his chest, threatening to kill himself and claiming that he would be dead by midnight. The Hughes daughters then contacted the state police.
Two state police troopers allegedly claimed that Walter Hughes seemed fine and that one of his daughters should take him out to dinner while they searched for the gun. When told that Hughes carried the gun on him, the troopers claimed that they could take no further action.
Later that evening, Hughes’s daughters arranged for the state police to check on Hughes again, and the troopers found a suicide note, a cashier’s check of $82,000, a wallet, jewelry, and a cell phone inside the house. However, Hughes himself was nowhere to be found. Hughes’s body was finally discovered months later in a shell pit not far from his house. By then, it had decomposed to skeletal remains. Part of the Hughes’s lawsuit also involves how these remains were handled: when the family visited the shell pit the next day to leave flowers, they found skeletal remains that had not been removed, including Hughes’s jaw bone with the dentures still in place. A few days later, one of the daughters found a femur still in the pit. The Hughes family also complains that the state police never informed the county coroner that a shell casing had been found near the remains.
The Hughes family argues that the state troopers had committed wrongful death in that they had an affirmative duty to protect Walter Hughes from himself and others when they responded to the family’s call. The state troopers breached that duty by failing to take Walter Hughes into custody. As a result of this breach, Hughes died. The Hughes family claims to suffer from severe mental anguish due to the situation and seek both compensatory and punitive damages.
Whether police officers have an affirmative duty to prevent an individual from choosing to hurt himself is an interesting question. On the one hand, many states have laws permitting medical facilities to commit anyone believed to be suicidal. West Virginia has what is called a “permissive” duty to warn about an imminent suicide — however, that duty belongs to medical professionals whom the at-risk person has confided in, not law enforcement officials. On the other hand, there is evidence that law enforcement only have a duty to protect in two areas: when it is a state-created danger or when there is a “special relationship.” A state-created danger is when the police officer left the individual in a worse state than the police officer found him/her in by creating a danger that was previously non-existent or by increasing present danger. A special relationship is when the individual is in state custody. A skilled West Virginia wrongful death attorney could make the argument that this case falls within one of the two areas.