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Disclaimer: I do not aim to take a position on the ethics of this situation with this question. This question, and all details of the hypothetical case at hand, merely arose from a discussion I recently had, and the law surrounding it intrigued me.

Facts of this hypothetical case

Joanne is the mother of Jordan, who is fourteen years old. She is a single mother after she left her ex-boyfriend, because he abused her. She's a manager at her local supermarket. She is also a content creator on the platform OnlyFans, where she makes large sums of money posting explicit content of herself. Jordan was unaware, until a certain point, that her mother had an OnlyFans account.

One day, at school, Jordan's peers reveal to him, in brutally humiliating fashion, that they have discovered his mother's OnlyFans account. Not only that, but an unknown source has leaked some of the content she uploads there. This leads to intense bullying. For a fortnight, Jordan is too embarrassed to speak about it to anyone. However, he eventually opens up to his mother about the bullying, and that it has been caused by her content on OnlyFans. He pleads with her to, at the least, engage in what he considers damage control, and delete the account, and that the extra money isn't a necessity. Despite this, Joanne refuses and continues to upload and sell content on OnlyFans.

The onslaught of teasing and bullying against Jordan continues. After around a month, he musters the courage to discuss his plight with his teachers. Much to his disbelief and frustration, the teachers say that, while they have noticed ‘unusual’ behaviour towards him, in class, for a while now, and while that behaviour may have indicia of bullying, they don't have enough evidence to take any action that would make a difference. In fact, they find the entire ordeal incredibly awkward themselves (though this they do not explicitly mention).

Around a month and a half have elapsed since the first instance of bullying, and the bullying has not ceased. Jordan contemplates moving schools, but he convinces himself that it's futile, because, to him, everyone around his age in his town knows about his mother's OnlyFans account. Ultimately, after an acrimonious argument with his mother, in which he pleads one more time for her to delete her OnlyFans account, and she refuses, Jordan takes his own life.

Questions of law

  1. In England and Wales, could Joanne be found guilty of gross-negligence manslaughter?

  2. Does any American state have a statute under which Joanne would be liable for her son's death?

  3. In any jurisdiction, could anyone but Joanne, in light of the aforementioned circumstances, face liability for Jordan's death?

Thanks in advance for any responses, and I apologise in advance if you find either the hypothetical or the questions asinine.

3 Answers 3

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Does any American state have a statute under which Joanne would be liable for her son's death?

Probably not. None of the mother's conduct seems like a basis for a homicide prosecution.

Suicide is only prosecuted, in states that allow it to be prosecuted at all, for conduct with a calculated purpose to cause a suicide, or encouragement of someone to commit suicide. These facts don't show that. There is no intent to cause suicide and there is no encouragement of the son to commit suicide by on the mother.

A survey of selected laws on point by the Connecticut Legislative Research Service can be found here.

The case law and related legal theory is reviewed and analyzed in this law review article with the following abstract:

In 2017, a Massachusetts court convicted Michelle Carter of manslaughter for encouraging the suicide of Conrad Roy by text message, but imposed a sentence of only fifteen months. The conviction was unprecedented in imposing homicide liability for verbal encouragement of apparently voluntary suicide. Yet if Carter killed, her purpose that Roy die arguably merited liability for murder and a much longer sentence. This Article argues that our ambivalence about whether and how much to punish Carter reflects suicide’s dual character as both a harm to be prevented and a choice to be respected. As such, the Carter case requires us to choose between competing conceptions of criminal law, one utilitarian and one libertarian. A utilitarian criminal law seeks to punish inciting suicide to reduce harm. A libertarian criminal law, on the other hand, justifies voluntary suicide as an exercise of liberty, and incitement of suicide as valuable speech. Utilitarian values are implicit in the foreseeability standards prevailing in the law of causation, but libertarian values are implicit in the reluctance of prosecutors to seek, and legislatures to define, homicide liability for assisting suicide. The prevalence of statutes punishing assisting—but not encouraging—suicide as a nonhomicide offense reflects a compromise between these values. These statutes are best interpreted as imposing accomplice liability for conduct left unpunished for two antithetical reasons: it is justified in so far as the suicide is autonomous and excused in so far as the suicide is involuntary. This explains why aiding suicide is punished, but less severely than homicide. Yet even these statutes would not punish Carter’s conduct of encouragement alone. Her conviction although seemingly required by prevailing causation doctrine, is unprecedented.

Guyora Binder and Luis Chiesa, "The Puzzle of Inciting Suicide" 56 American Criminal Law Review 65 (2019).

In any jurisdiction, could anyone but Joanne, in light of the aforementioned circumstances, face liability for Jordan's death?

Maybe the bullies could be prosecuted for homicide or some lesser charge like harassment intended to provoke a suicide or something like that. More facts would have to be developed on that point.

Maybe teachers have civil liability for negligence, but not criminal liability for not intervening since they didn't intend to cause or encourage the suicide.

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  • Interesting. I appreciate your response, ohwilleke. Aug 10, 2023 at 20:25
  • What if, during the first time Jordan pleaded with his mother to delete her OnlyFans account, he revealed that he was feeling suicidal? And what if, in the final altercation before Jordan's suicide, which involves his second rejected plea to get the OF account deleted, he says he feels as though he's virtually on the verge of committing suicide? Does the case change in any way then? Let's assume that Joanna simply just didn't want to delete her OnlyFans account, and she didn't intend to do anything to Jordan, regardless of whether her actions did or not. Aug 10, 2023 at 20:31
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    @BakedAlaska624 Those facts don't change the outcome. I am not aware of any case that has found a crime was committed on that kind of fact pattern. Could a prosecutor make a good faith argument to interpret the law differently? Maybe. But I'd be surprised if that argument prevailed.
    – ohwilleke
    Aug 10, 2023 at 21:13
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On the facts as presented, there might be some criminality here

But it all depends on facts not stated

The son

Suicide is no longer a crime in NSW.

The mother

I can see no criminality here. It is an unfortunate fact that children take their own lives, and sometimes this happens after arguments with their parents: that doesn't make the parent criminally responsible.

The bullies

Some forms of bullying cross the line into criminality.

Section 60E of the Crimes Act 1900, titled ‘Assaults etc at schools’, makes it a criminal offence to assault, stalk, harass or intimidate any staff member or student while they are at school. As described the bullying is probably harassment and might be intimidation but there are insufficient facts given to be sure.

There are Commonwealth laws against cyber-harassment but the OP is silent on how the bullying happened.

There would be evidentiary difficulties in proving either since the victim can’t give evidence, and the perpetrators can’t be forced to testify. The OP doesn’t state if there is physical evidence, or third-party witnesses to the bullying.

Section 31C makes it a crime to incite suicide but there is no evidence of that in the OP.

The school

The school and the teachers have an obligation under the Work Health and Safety Act to take all reasonable steps to provide a safe environment. Failure to do so is a crime.

Bullying is a foreseeable hazard, both in general and in the particular case. Whether the school acted reasonable would depend on if they had adequate policies and procedures in place and if they reasonably followed those in the particular case.

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It’s a way to make money. There is a good chance that she makes more than the parents of the bullies.

If anyone is responsible it is the teachers who blatantly refused to step in when they should have known that bullying is going on, and the bullies.

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    Answers that don't discuss any laws in any jurisdictions are not helpful because they can't be distinguished from random guesses.
    – bdb484
    Aug 10, 2023 at 18:20
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    This really feels more like a comment than an answer. Aug 10, 2023 at 20:15

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