Suicide and other stigmatizing events: Is disclosure required?

December 30, 2009
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In most of the nearly 20 states that have laws dealing directly with a licensee’s duty to disclose suicides, homicides and other stigmatizing events on properties for sale,  licensees do not have a duty to disclose the event — except when directly asked.master_bedroom

Pennsylvania licensees enjoy no such statute, however, in 2007 President Judge Robert E. Kunselman at the Court of Common Pleas of Beaver County granted preliminary objections and dismissed counts of a Complaint seeking rescission and damages for fraud based on the failure to disclose a suicide that occurred in a home sold to the Plaintiffs.  At issue was whether a suicide in the house was a “material defect” that required disclosure by the seller and the real estate licensees. In his ruling, Judge Kunselman held that the prior owner’s suicide in the master bedroom of the residence “is not a legal issue that would interfere with the use and enjoyment of the property.”

As you might expect, the facts of the case were gruesome. At the time of the home’s offering for sale, one of the property’s bedrooms was filled with furniture, its floor largely hidden from view. When the buyers did their final walk-through, they noticed the furniture had been removed from this bedroom. But a piece of carpeting — the same color and material as the carpeting underneath it — remained in the center of the room, covering the area previously obstructed by furniture. Once they owned the home, the buyers were told by their carpet cleaners that it was impossible to remove the blood stains from the carpeting.

In ruling on the case Judge Kunselman noted that a home buyer may be disturbed by the fact that a suicide occurred in the master bedroom. That, however, does not make it a material fact.  Because the owner’s death was not a legal issue that would interfere with the purchaser’s use and enjoyment of the property — and because there was no evidence that home buyers ever articulated that suicide was material to their decision to purchase the property — the Court dismissed the action.

The decision is not surprising.  The advice my office has given to Hotline callers has been consistent with the Court’s finding:  in the absence of a clear inquiry, we do not believe there is a duty to disclose the events of the people who lived in the home or the maladies or conditions they endured.

There exists one possible exception to this principal.  If the suicide is so notorious that it markedly impacts the value of the home, it should be disclosed.  The Seller Disclosure Law requires disclosure of a material defect which is defined as “a problem with residential real property or any portion of it that would have a significant adverse impact on the value of the property.”  Is it possible that a suicide will have a dramatic affect on value?  We have not seen that case to date.

It’s important to remember that the duty to disclose will vary based upon the circumstances.  There is presently pending in Pennsylvania at least one suicide case where the home buyers claim that the licensees had clear knowledge of their desire to not purchase a home where suicide was committed. How a phobia or desire is communicated may be pivotal.  I think it is safe to presume that most people would prefer not to sit in a chair where a person recently died or to occupy a hospital bed whose last patient succumbed to his final illness. 

Though the disclosure of a stigmatizing event may not be required in the absence of a clear inquiry, it is an appropriate subject to discuss with your seller before accepting the listing and embarking on a marketing strategy. One thing is reasonably certain: the buyers will learn of the suicide or homicide within minutes of their taking possession of the new home. When they do will they blame you for concealment, fraud and unfair practices?  Even in the absence of a law suit, your reputation can take a hit when buyers perceive that you have pulled a fast one.  Sellers may choose to reveal the events to prospective buyers and you have the option of not accepting the listing. Discuss the matter with your broker or office manager.

About James L. Goldsmith, Esq.:
Jim Goldsmith, Esq. is an attorney with Caldwell & Kearns and serves as general counsel to PAR. A substantial portion of his practice is dedicated to providing advice and counsel to real estate licensees and representing and defending real estate salespersons and brokers in civil lawsuits and licensing claims across the Commonwealth. He routinely counsels employers on employee relations issues as one of the voices of the PAR Legal Hotline.
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5 Responses to Suicide and other stigmatizing events: Is disclosure required?

  1. Anne on January 18, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    Great article and should serve to make clear in agents’ minds what they “should” do rather than what is the strict legal “right to do.” If I were showing buyers a home in which a suicide or homicide had been committed, I would not hesitate to disclose. If I knew that a listing I was about to take was stigmatized in such a way, and the seller instructed me to not disclose, I would refuse the listing. As agents, we need to set aside whatever our personal feelings would be about such a situation and recognize that this is a huge problem for some people. If we do not disclose, we open ourselves not only to potential legal issues, but to hits to our reputations.

    Certainly such a stigmatism could, and likely would, affect value. There was a famous case in my hometown in which a husband killed his wife in their home. The home was in a desirable neighborhood, but when it went up for sale, the case had received so much publicity that I’m not sure the place ever did sell. Many years ago, my spouse and I were looking for another home for ourselves, and had hoped to look at a home in which a suicide had occurred–a fact that was disclosed in the MLS listing, and which had led to a below-market low price. I was a bit hesitant, but my spouse was just fine with it. So, we need to bear in mind that different buyers will feel differently about such a situation. And we need to let them make the decision for themselves via full disclosure.

  2. Kathleen on December 30, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    Great article, especially the end. You are right that the buyers of a home will certainly get all the juicy details from the neighbors once they move in, if not sooner. I represented buyers a few years ago who heard about the suicide in the house they were buying prior to us making an offer. The selling agent was heistant to confirm the suicide when I first approached her about it, but I convinced her of the importance of doing so. I simply stated that if we had heard it through the grapevine so would others. Since my buyers were not particularly bothered by the suicide we used the knowledge to our advantage and negotiated a lower price.

  3. Jim Gainer on December 30, 2009 at 9:24 am

    Thanks for covering this issue so well. I am a big believer in bringing things like this up way early in the process. This is a good discussion to have with the Seller as they complete the disclosure and dig into some issues like this. It’s also a good discussion to have with the Buyer as you discuss the purchasing process. You might find something the Seller would rather hide and you could eliminate a problem down the line. With the Buyer you might learn things about them you might have otherwise missed – like this kind of fear, or things like they don’t want to be close to a railroad track, or even as simple as a pet allergy. These are the kinds of things we can help consumers avoid or overcome in the negotiations, but we’ll never learn them if we don’t talk about these kinds of issues early in the relationship.

  4. Karen Jones on December 30, 2009 at 9:20 am

    Jim,
    Thanks for keeping us always informed in a legal “tone” but putting the punch line in as to our reputation as agents. Your incite and articles are always enjoyed and absorbed in my data bank. Keep them coming on all topics of interest.
    Karen

  5. Paul Mazzochetti on December 30, 2009 at 7:26 am

    Jim…once again a great article! Your final paragraph was right on point as to what can WILL happen to an agent who doesn’t disclose. About 12 yrs ago I listed and sold an estate. Disclosure exempt right? The executrix was a surviving child who just happened to be a Commonwealth Judge. A nephew of hers had committed a crime at the house years earlier. I knew about it and she was candid with me from the start. She made it clear she wanted it disclosed. She gave me a great piece of advice that I have followed since “If you ever come before me or any competent judge for disclosing something weren’t sure about, we would be much more lienient and forgiving than if you didn’t disclose something you should have!” Her advice to me was to always play it safe. Disclosure was less stringient back then than today. 20 yrs in the business claim free and I remember her when I am reviewing disclosures !!

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