Ethics Quiz Of The Day: Deadly Dairy Queen?

The late Kenneth Sutter

The late Kenneth Sutter

Harley Branham, 21, a manager at the Dairy Queen in Fayette, Missouri, has been charged with second degree felony manslaughter following the suicide of 17-year-old Kenneth Suttner, whom she supervised. At an inquest called by the Howard County coroner, witnesses testified that Branham mistreated the teen. She  made Suttner lie on the restaurant floor as he cleaned it by hand, and once threw a cheeseburger at him.  Other witnesses said the boy also had been bullied for years at his school, where students mocked his weight and a speech impediment.

The coroner’s jury blamed both the Dairy Queen and the Glasgow School District for failures in training and prevention of harassment, concluding that Branham “was the principal in the cause of death,” and also that Dairy Queen negligently failed to properly train employees about harassment prevention and resolution, according to the inquest’s verdict form. Jurors also found that the Glasgow Public School system was negligent in failing to prevent his bullying.

All of those factors, the inquest concluded, caused the boy “to take his own life.”

Suttner shot himself on December 21, 2015.

Howard County Coroner Frank Flaspohler explained the inquest and the verdict, saying,  “I felt there was bullying going on and things weren’t getting corrected. Hopefully this makes the school pay attention to what’s going on. And it’s not just in that school. We all need to wake up and say this exists and we need to take care of it.”

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Is this an ethical use of the criminal laws?

I’m especially interested in the response to this one, but at the risk of influencing the answers, I’ll weigh in now.

No, it’s not an ethical use of criminal law. We have looked at this issue before, when charges were brought against a teen whose cruel comments on social media were deemed sufficient to justify a criminal indictment after her victim killed herself. The Coroner’s statement is a smoking gun: he wants to increase awareness of bullying, so he is using unjust criminal charges to do it. Wrong. The ends doesn’t justify the means, “it’s for a good cause” is just a rationalization, “two wrongs don’t make a right,” and “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

I’ll add another one that isn’t so familiar, but should be, and appears on Ethics Alarms often: “When ethics fails, the law steps in”…and, I will add, often makes a mess. Unless it was shown that the Diary Queen manager was deliberately trying to conspire with the school to drive Branham to kill himself, there is no mens rea here. There was no crime. It may have been a tort, in which case the remedy would be a lawsuit by the boy’s family.

The law can’t fix bullying, bad managers, and the daily cruelties people inflict upon each other without considering the effects and consequences. That’s what ethics is for. Using the criminal laws this way is based on emotion and incompetence: we just have to do something to respond to this horrible, senseless tragedy.

And when Harley Branham, who isn’t much older than Sutter was, commits suicide after being bullied by the legal system, will Frank Flaspohler be indicted for manslaughter under the same theory of causation that led him to have her prosecuted?


Pointer: ABA Journal

Facts:  Washington PostColumbia Daily Tribune, Associated Press.

27 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz Of The Day: Deadly Dairy Queen?

  1. I would have guessed the gunshot wound was the primary cause of death. Sounds like the coroner needs to find a new job.

  2. Unless it was shown that the Diary Queen manager was deliberately trying to conspire with the school to drive Branham to kill himself, there is no mens rea here. There was no crime. It may have been a tort, in which case the remedy would be a lawsuit by the boy’s family.

    This was exactly my judgment before hitting the fold link. To me, it seems a very easy call.

  3. As awful as the treatment was that he received, I have to agree. There is a case for parents stepping in if the school cannot control the bullying. And there is a case for making sure your adult child knows when it’s time to quit a job.

    All prosecuting for bullying does is create yet another layer to the bad law that is hate crimes legislation while stifling free expression (albeit jerky free expression) by prosecuting it.

  4. I’m wondering where bullying shades into workplace harassment: The supervisor may have had a thing against a fat kid with a speech impediment which I guess would be a protected characteristic and I’m surmising that this went on for awhile. Probably a civil suit against the manager and that particularly Dairy Queen would be all that could be done. A manslaughter charge against the manager goes way too far.

    • Yup. This is my thinking too. We all have shitty aspects of our life and we are saved by having a variety of outlets. Had this gentleman a positive school experience, a passionate extracurricular experience, something to look forward to, the result would not have been the same. Those are factors unrelated to the alleged despicable behavior of the so-called “manager”. Parents might be to blame because they didn’t engage him enough with activities and build him up with constructive skills. But the primary person to address here is the victim himself *if* he did not seek help.

      • How could the parents have not been engaged with him enough to be aware of this? This is the kind of price we pay for being too busy for our kids, and not investing in time with them.

  5. And what of all of those who are serving excessively long jail sentences so that others will be persuaded not to partake of a particular criminal activity? Have we not a history of “hanging those who steal horses not because they steal horses but rather so that others will not steal horses”?

    I agree with you, Jack, but wanted to make a parallel here to see what conversation it may elicit.

    • I think excessively long jail sentences for actual crimes is a different beast from prosecuting someone for actions that probably don’t constitute a crime.

      • It might be a misdemeanor which by definition is a crime. The woman manager might be convicted of that and have to serve jail time or to do community service.

  6. Since I am trying to open cans of worms today, why not mention another one that stymies me: why can we charge children as adults based upon the severity of the crime? We do not hold children accountable for lesser crimes in the same way that we do adults, but on crimes that actually require a more mature sense of reason to understand, we hold them as accountable as we do adults.

  7. To answer your specific question: No, I can’t see how this is ethical. As you note, it sure does open up a huge slippery slope. How many people commit suicide when facing legal charges. Are the police and prosecutor culpable? What about suicide by cop when a criminal decides they’d rather die than go back to prison? It can only lead to anarchy.

    But I do have a question on the manslaughter statute in Missouri:Is mens rea a part of the crime? Often manslaughter covers negligence.

  8. This one is easy.

    Of course it’s unethical.

    Yes the bullies are at fault for creating the conditions leading to his suicide, but to apply a law in a culture that values protecting the innocent at risk of not punishing some of the guilty, to apply a law to place blame on bullying has so many shades of gray there is NO WAY to easily determine how many are culpable of the bullying or to what degree each individual’s bullying played a part or whether or not some poor shmoe on the sidewalk not saying “hi” helped contribute to this poor kids disgust with himself.

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