Act Not Willful Where Debtor Suffered Acute Psychosis

Posted by NCBRC - June 13, 2022

A debt based on a civil judgment for pain and suffering arising out of an incident during which the debtor had an acute psychotic break and severely beat the claimant, was dischargeable in bankruptcy because his psychiatric condition prevented him from acting willfully within the meaning of section 523(a)(6). Lombardi v. Picard (In re Picard), No. 16-15432 Adv. Proc. No. 16-359 (Bankr. E.D. Pa. June 10, 2022).

At the age of eighteen, the debtor suffered a severe psychotic break during which he believed one of his college friends, Sabrina Lombardi, was possessed by the devil. He beat her into unconsciousness and beat another woman who intervened. The debtor was taken by police to a psychiatric hospital where he continued to behave violently. He was diagnosed as “experiencing an acute psychosis, defined as ‘acute detachment from the reality…frequently manifest…by religious ideation and paranoia.’” He was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The debtor ultimately entered a guilty plea to aggravated assault and the sentencing judge found him “unable to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law as a result of the perceived need to protect himself arising out of his psychosis at that time[,]” He was sentenced to two twenty year terms of probation. He was also ordered to pay the costs of prosecution and any medical or psychological costs incurred by Ms. Lombardi as a result of the incident. In December, 2011, Ms. Lombardi obtained a civil judgment in the amount of $250,000 against the debtor for pain and suffering.

In July, 2016, the debtor filed for chapter 7 relief and Ms. Lombardi moved for an order that her claim for the civil judgment was nondischargeable under section 523(a)(6). After an attempt at mediation, the parties moved toward trial, but Ms. Lombardi’s counsel routinely failed to meet court-ordered deadlines and failed to provide pre-trial documents and witness lists. As a result, the only witnesses to the debtor’s state of mind at the time of the attack were Ms. Lombardi and the other victim. The court took judicial notice of the criminal proceedings and civil judgment.

Also at trial was Dr. Mikuriya, an expert in acute psychiatric conditions, who testified that she had diagnosed the debtor with acute psychosis on the night of the attack. She opined that the debtor’s state of mind at the time was such that he acted out of cognitive derangement and had no control over his actions.

At trial the debtor maintained that “he was clearly acting under the inducement of acute psychosis at the time of the Attack, and, under those circumstances, he lacked the requisite capacity to act willfully or maliciously when he attacked Ms. Lombardi.”

Section 523(a)(6) excepts from discharge any debt based on a “willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another entity or to the property of another entity.” For an act to be willful, the debtor must have intended the injury or have acted with knowledge that his actions would have a substantial certainty of leading to injury. It is not enough merely to have intended the act leading to the injury. For a wrongful act to be deemed malicious, it must have been done “without just cause or excuse, even in the absence of personal hatred, spite, or ill-will.”

Finding that “[n]o cause or excuse exists under these circumstances that could possibly justify the violence inflicted upon Ms. Lombardi,” the court found the beating was clearly malicious.

However, the court found that his conduct was not willful, stating that it “was the product of acute psychosis and that he was simply not in control of his actions. In fact, it was apparent that his paranoia, obsession with the devil, and aggressiveness extended to basically everyone he encountered the night of the Attack. The Debtor was experiencing a break from reality, which tragically resulted in him severely harming two unsuspecting friends. Under the specific circumstances of this case, and in consideration of all the information of record, the Court holds that the Debtor’s actions were not willful because he lacked the requisite intent given his psychotic break from reality, and therefore the Civil Judgment will be deemed dischargeable.”

Picard Bankr ED Pa June 2022



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