The Michigan Court of Appeals holds that a person can be scared to death—literally


“The baronet himself told him about the family hound, and so prepared the way for his own death. Stapleton, as I will continue to call him, knew that the old man’s heart was weak and that a shock would kill him. … He had heard also that Sir Charles was superstitious and had taken this grim legend very seriously. His ingenious mind instantly suggested a way by which the baronet could be done to death, and yet it would be hardly possible to bring home the guilt to the real murderer.” — Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

Is it really possible to be frightened to death? It’s an expression we hear regularly and a concept that turns up in literature—most notably, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, where Sherlock Holmes felt it to be a sufficient explanation for Sir Charles Baskerville’s death.

But is this theory sound enough for presentation to a jury? That’s the question the Michigan Court of Appeals addressed in Kassem v Gaddy.

Kassem was a wrongful death action. The decedent, 85-year-old Adbulla Kassem, slammed into a tractor-trailer while driving home on what the Court of Appeals characterized as a “dark, wet night in February 2008.” One of the issues was how—and when—Kassem died. Did he have a heart attack before driving into the tractor-trailer? Or did the sudden knowledge that he was about to crash into a truck—one that he hadn’t seen earlier because of its defective rear lights—frighten Kassem to death?

The plaintiff sought to present the testimony of Dr. Werner Spitz, who would testify that Kassem’s “fatal cardiac arrhythmia was triggered by a sudden surge of the blood pressure, outpouring of adrenaline and vasoconstriction caused by the situation of great and sudden fear of impending doom presented by the motor vehicle accident.”

The defense argued that this testimony was inadmissible — that it was too unreliable to actually assist the jury. After conducting a Daubert hearing, the circuit court granted the defense’s motion to exclude Dr. Spitz’s testimony. Because the plaintiff’s case failed as a matter of law without this testimony, it also granted the defense’s motion for summary judgment. But the Court of Appeals reversed.

The Court of Appeals began its analysis by noting that Daubert motions are not meant to “discover[] [absolute truth,’ or resolv[e] ‘genuine scientific disputes.’” A court must only ensure that scientific testimony is “rationally derived from a sound foundation.” Experts must use “the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice… in the relevant field.”

The Court of Appeals concluded that Dr. Spitz’s testimony was sufficiently grounded in scientific and medical literature, and there was no evidence that he “unreliably applied forensic methods to the facts of the case.” Indeed, the Court found sufficient medical support for the notion that “acute emotional stress can cause sudden cardiac death.”

The jury could only accept Dr. Spitz’s testimony if it concluded that Kassem suddenly saw the truck only moments before crashing into it. This, according to the Court of Appeals, is a question of fact: “Because Kassem is dead, it is impossible to definitely establish his predeath visual perceptions. Rather, the jury must utilize direct and circumstantial evidence to determine whether Kassem saw or should have seen the truck before striking it.”

Kassem now returns to the circuit court. It isn’t the only case to address the theory that fear can lead to death. Scientific American discusses a 2009 criminal action based on this theory and seeks guidance from the chairman of Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s neurology department here.

Have questions or looking for further information? Contact one of our attorneys.