Justices Reject ‘Clergy Malpractice’ Claim in Suicide

Times Staff Writer

Rejecting a claim of “clergy malpractice,” the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that church pastors may not be held liable for the suicide of a despondent youth to whom they had given spiritual counseling.

The court unanimously dismissed a widely followed lawsuit brought by the parents of Kenneth Nally, 24, a one-time high school honor student who shot himself to death in 1979 after a previous suicide attempt.

Nally’s parents, Walter and Maria Nally of Tujunga, had charged that four pastoral counselors of the 10,000-member Grace Community Church of the Valley, located in Sun Valley, had been negligent in failing to refer the depressed youth to licensed psychotherapists.


The ruling came in the first case of its kind to reach the state high court. Other such suits, seeking to hold counselors liable for suicide, divorce and other events allegedly resulting from their negligence, have been filed in other states but thus far have met with little success.

No Legal Duty

By a 5-2 vote, the court held that church counselors, or others who are not licensed psychotherapists, have no legal duty to refer a person to psychiatrists or other mental health professionals, even if they believe that person may be suicidal.

“Neither the Legislature nor the courts have ever imposed a legal obligation on persons to take affirmative steps to prevent the suicide of one who is not under the care of a physician in a hospital,” Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas wrote.

Lucas said that while Nally’s death was a “profound tragedy,” imposing such a duty on nonprofessional counselors could deter people who need help from seeking treatment out of fear that they would be involuntarily committed to psychiatric facilities.

And in view of the wide variety of religious practices in California, it would be “impractical and quite possibly unconstitutional” to try to determine to whom the duty should apply, Lucas said. Extending liability to include voluntary and noncommercial counseling would discourage private assistance efforts, he added.

The court noted, however, that its ruling did not bar lawsuits for injuries resulting from counseling by nonprofessionals who hold themselves out as professionals.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Marcus M. Kaufman, joined by Justice Allen E. Broussard, contended that, contrary to the court majority, the church’s counselors did owe a legal duty of care to Nally. The church, with a staff of about 50 pastoral counselors, had said it was competent to deal with severe psychological problems and had developed a “close counseling relationship” with Nally for just that purpose, Kaufman said.

But further evidence in the case indicated that the pastors, in fact, had fulfilled that duty by advising him several times to seek medical care, and the suit thus should be dismissed, the justice said.

End of Long Fight

David R. Cooksey of Tustin, the attorney for the church and four pastors who were defendants in the suit, said he was “extremely pleased” with the ruling and the apparent end to an arduous eight-year legal struggle.

“Church counselors can breathe a sigh of relief and can continue what they have been doing for centuries, without fear of being sued,” Cooksey said. “If this ruling had gone the other way, it would have had a very chilling effect on both pastors and parishioners.”

An attorney for the American Assn. of Pastoral Counselors, Peter M. Shannon of Chicago, said that while the group had not taken sides in the case, it welcomed Wednesday’s ruling because it will allow counselors to continue to assist suicidal people without risking liability.

“Depending on the nature of the problem, often the highly trained pastoral counselor is best equipped to deal with someone with suicidal tendencies, at least in the initial stage,” Shannon said.

Edward Barker of Los Angeles, attorney for the Nallys, said he was “very disappointed” with the ruling.

“We had to be worried because this is a conservative court with conservative inclinations,” Barker said. “But we thought we had both the facts and the law on our side.”

Other Issues Not Raised

The ruling, based on state law, did not address the broader constitutional issues that had been raised. Barker said that, nonetheless, he and the family would study the opinion to see if there was a basis to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

At a news conference at their Tujunga home, the Nallys and their 27-year-old son, Walter Jr., expressed dismay at the court’s ruling.

“I cannot as a father just leave this go,” said Walter Nally Sr. “No one sacrifices any of my boys to the gods and gets away with it.”

Nally said he thought the decision was “political” and that, in this instance, the court did not want to “take a lot of static.”

Walter Nally Jr. said: “This is a case about irresponsible counseling. They knew he was going to kill himself and they didn’t tell us about it.”

Nally, who was raised in a Roman Catholic household, converted to Protestantism while a student at UCLA and, in 1974, he began attending the Grace Community Church, the largest Protestant church in Los Angeles County.

Depressed over a broken romance and other problems, he began to receive counseling from church pastors and a professional psychologist. In 1979, after becoming more despondent, he took an overdose of an antidepressant drug prescribed by a physician and was rushed to a hospital.

According to the court’s opinion, Nally told two pastoral counselors that he was sorry he had not succeeded in committing suicide. Later, a hospital staff psychiatrist recommended that Nally be voluntarily committed to a hospital, but both he and his parents refused. A subsequent proposal for involuntary commitment also was rejected by the parents.

Nally met further with pastoral counselors, one of whom made an appointment for him to see a physician. Another gave him the name of a psychologist, the court’s opinion said. Nally consulted the psychologist and later discussed receiving therapy at a clinic. But a few days later, after a family argument, he was found dead in a friend’s apartment.

In their $1-million wrongful-death suit, the Nallys claimed that the church had been negligent in the training and hiring of its pastoral counselors and that, after their son’s failed suicide attempt, the counselors had “actively and affirmatively” discouraged him from seeking professional care.

The parents said also that the counselors had wrongly assured the despondent youth that he would “still be accepted into heaven” if he committed suicide. The counselors’ advice aggravated his depression and helped lead to his death, the family said. Instead, the Nallys said, the counselors should have referred their son to a psychiatrist.

The suit was dismissed twice in Los Angeles Superior Court but reinstated in the state Court of Appeal. The appellate panel held last year that church counselors and other unlicensed counselors owed a legal duty to people they advise and could be held liable for failing to take “appropriate measures” to prevent suicide.

Other Groups Join In

Several religious organizations joined in support of the subsequent appeal to the state high court by the Grace Community Church, contending that the appellate ruling infringed on religious liberty. If the decision were upheld, they warned, it would discourage churches and pastors from offering counseling for fear of being sued in the event of suicide or some other misfortune.

In another action Wednesday, the justices let stand an appeals court ruling that Los Angeles County officials did not improperly use county staff and funds to prepare a 1984 statewide initiative reforming criminal trial proceedings. The measure, known as the “speedy trial” initiative, failed to obtain the required number of signatures to win a place on the ballot. Justices Stanley Mosk and Broussard voted to hear an appeal of the ruling filed by the League of Women Voters of California.

Times staff writer Greg Braxton in Los Angeles contributed to this article.