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Polmatier v. Russ

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Brief Fact Summary. In November, 1976, Norman Russ (Defendant) was charged with murder in the shooting death of his father-in-law, Arthur Polmatier (Polmatier). Dorothy B. Polmatier (Plaintiff) brought an action against Defendant to recover damages for the wrongful death of her husband.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. The majority of American jurisdictions take the view that a defendant’s insanity is not alone an excuse from tort liability.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

Such a statute is only a new application of an ancient common-law principle, that where one of two innocent persons must suffer loss from an act done, it is just that it should fall on the one who caused the loss rather than upon the other who had no agency in producing it and could not by any means have avoided it.

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Facts. In November, 1976, Defendant, along with his 2-month-old daughter visited the home of his father-in-law, Polmatier. Polmatier lived in East Windsor, Connecticut with his wife, Plaintiff, and their son, eleven year-old Robert Polmatier. In the course of the evening, Robert Polmatier heard a disturbance in the living room and upon investigation discovered Defendant beating Polmatier with a beer bottle. The boy went to get help and Defendant retrieved a 30-30-caliber rifle from the bedroom and shot Polmatier to death. Subsequent to his being charged with murder, Defendant was examined by a psychiatrist who concluded that the Defendant was legally insane at the time of the homicide. The trial court concurred, and Defendant was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

Issue. Can a defendant who has been deemed mentally incompetent nevertheless be held liable for their intentional torts?

Held. The court affirmed the trial court’s judgment in favor of the executrix on her wrongful death claim against the Defendant.

Discussion. Even though there are instances when the trier of fact may conclude that a defendant did not form a rational choice to commit tortious conduct, he may nevertheless be held liable for his actions. A rational choice is not a necessary element to forming the requisite intent to violate the interest of another. In Polmatier, the court also relied on public policy grounds to arrive at its decision. First, relying on reasoning taken from the Supreme Court of Kansas, the court concluded: “where one of two innocent persons must suffer a loss, it should be borne by the one who occasioned it.” Second, the enforcement of liability provides a degree of incentive for the relatives or caretakers of those with mental illnesses to sufficiently restrain them where there exists the possibility of injuries to third parties. Finally, a mechanism for assessing liability anticipates and precludes the possibility that those committing tortious acts may feign mental illness in order to escape liability.

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